Sissy Fits

Southern Baptist Sissies and King Ubu try to right powerful wrongs, personal and political

If only Zach could see Southern Baptist Sissies, now running at Uptown Players. All summer dozens of online blogs have bounced stories and comments back and forth about Zach, a 16-year-old Tennessee boy whose own Web journal details his fears of being dispatched by his parents to Love in Action, a Christian program in Memphis that claims to "cure" gay kids and turn them straight.

Zach's diary (www.myspace.com/specialkid) hasn't been updated since early June. If he is locked up at Love in Action, he's being subjected to treatment that includes isolation from family and friends. He is prohibited from physical touching other than handshakes or pats on the back, and he cannot speak after 9 p.m. He's being told not to act "campy." According to the program's long list of rules and practices, he's supposed to "actively re-evaluate the influences of secular media" on his life. He's not allowed access to the Internet, television or movies (Zach's posted faves include Camp, Finding Nemoand Girl, Interrupted). Only explicitly Christian music is permitted. Bach and Beethoven, according to the program, are not considered Christian.

You read this stuff and wonder how? Why? Who? And then you see Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies and you know. Shores certainly knows. He's lived it. Now 47, Shores grew up in Texas as the son of a Baptist minister who preached harsh lessons from Leviticus and believed that gays end up in the fiery lakes of hell. Shores married, had kids and built a solid career writing scripts for bland TV sitcoms. Then in 1995 the biggest come-to-Jesus moment of his life found him coming out to his wife, family and friends. It wasn't easy, so the following year he wrote his first play about it, Sordid Lives, a comedy that enjoyed a 15-month, sold-out run in Los Angeles before going to regional theaters (Uptown Players did it here). Shores also wrote and directed the film version starring Delta Burke, Beau Bridges and Olivia Newton-John.

Some of the best moments in Sissies are provided by two sideline characters, Peanut (beautifully played by Terry Vandivort) and Odette Annette Barnett (Molly Moroney).
Mark Oristano
Some of the best moments in Sissies are provided by two sideline characters, Peanut (beautifully played by Terry Vandivort) and Odette Annette Barnett (Molly Moroney).

Now an executive producer and writer for Showtime's out-as-out-can-be Queer as Folk series, Shores has followed Sordid Lives with more autobiographical plays with gay themes. He's slick at scoring easy laughs from broadly written characters who say funny, trashy things in accents that migrate between Slingblade and Mayberry. With names like "Aunt Booger" and "Uncle Humpty," Shores' creations are so swishy and trailer park they make the gals of Steel Magnolias sound like King Lear's daughters.

So Southern Baptist Sissies, his fifth and most serious play, might disappoint some of his fans with its darker mood and tragic plot turns (one character commits suicide rather than tell his mother he's gay). But it might also hit close to the heart for anyone who survived being raised in a religion that teaches that only the straight and narrow-minded make it to heaven.

At the center of the play are four boys who grow up in Dallas attending a small Baptist church. All four realize early on that they're gay, but only two--Mark (Carter Hudson) and Benny (Emerson Collins)--are brave enough to admit it. Benny jets all the way over the rainbow as a professional drag queen. Mark, the poetic type, suffers the rejection of his first love, T.J. (Kevin Moore), the butchest and most religious of the foursome and the one most likely to live in the closet and marry a big-haired ol' Baylor gal. Sensitive Andrew (Chad Peterson) secretly cruises leather bars by night but still sings in the church choir on Sundays. He's the doomed one.

Scenes in Sissies alternate between the starchy sermons of the preacher (Rick Espaillat) and revealing, often profane, monologues from Mark, Benny, T.J. and Andrew. Everything is told from Mark's point of view. Thinking back to the church and his three childhood friends, he says, "For God so loved the world...ironic...this is the place we learned to hate ourselves."

Even in serious work like this, Shores can't help but reflexively turn to gags to lighten things up. Some of the best moments in Sissies are provided by two sideline characters, Peanut (beautifully played by Terry Vandivort) and Odette Annette Barnett (Molly Moroney), a couple of over-the-hill boozers who meet and swap sad life stories in a gay bar. "I'm a social drinker," twangs Peanut. "If you'll have another drink, 'social' I."

The writing is sometimes soap operatic and overwrought. Uptown's opening night ran about a half-hour too long, thanks to some indulgent emoting by a few of the actors (overall the cast is excellent). But Sissies is worth seeing because of what it says about acceptance and redemption. It dares to shake its fist at those who really do believe that you can pray the gay out of a boy by confining him to some program in Memphis that promises it can rid him of the urge to sing along with Cher and turn off his fantasies about the hunk on the swim team. Shores, through his main character, Mark, reassures anyone who doubts it that there is hope and grace for every troubled, questioning spirit. The little piece of scripture that says "God is love" isn't followed by an asterisk saying for whom that love is reserved.

A lot of the audience at Uptown sniffled and sobbed through the final scene of the play the other night. Such is the power of theater to reach deep inside and affirm life and love and inner peace. If only young Zach were free to see Southern Baptist Sissies, he'd know he isn't alone and that he's all right just the way God made him. Till then, let's keep him on the prayer chain, shall we?


Another play, another example of using art to speak truth to power. And with only about $50 worth of set pieces and props, Second Thought Theatre's wildly colorful and slyly sophisticated production of King Ubu at the Festival of Independent Theatres deserves special mention for doing the most with the least frou-frou. Using foam swimming pool noodles and other dollar-store whimsies--hula hoops, fuzzy bath mats, pinwheels, beach balls, plastic cups--they fill the stage with make-believe swords, bird wings, horses, halos and, at the end, the wheel and sails of a ship. (Ubu finishes its appearance at FIT with a 2 p.m. performance Aug. 6.)

Like Wiggles run amuck, the actors in King Ubu gambol childishly all over the black box theater at the Bath House Cultural Center. Director-designer Kelly Russell's set has a Romper Room innocence, too, with polka dot toy boxes and kiddie chairs. But there's nothing innocent about this play, an adaptation (by Second Thought's Allison Tolman and Steven Walters, who also star) of French writer Alfred Jarry's absurdist 1896 comedy about a pompous king whose self-aggrandizing decisions lead his country into useless war.

Ubu, played by Walters as a sputtering idiot, grows bored being the ruler (he got there the way Macbeth did, by murdering his predecessor). Told by advisers that his nation is too broke to wage war, he says, "The hell with the debt. It's imaginary and so is the economy." Then he orders "baby--medium rare" for lunch and sends his under-equipped troops off to battle.

The rewrite by Walters and Tolman, who plays Ubu's "bitch of my life" wife, draws pointed and amusing parallels to current warmongering morons. When King Ubu uses the words "military strategery," you know whom they're mocking.

Second Thought Theatre may be young and they may do plays on a shoestring budget, but by golly they've turned out some good work this year. They're smart and original, provocative and diverse. Using oodles of foam noodles to protest the sick politics of war, they succeed at making an exciting new piece of theater out of a very old one.

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