Say Amen, Already

Tate Taylor (from the original L.A. production) and Robert Lewis Stephenson grapple with conflicting views of a loving God in Del Shores' raw comic drama.
Michael Hiller

The mock religious Web site staged a spoof protest outside the eight-month Los Angeles run of Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies. A director friend of Shores' turned it into a 15-minute movie that was equal parts parody and extended promo for the production. The verisimilitude to real-life conservative Christian public action was enough to fool some people who saw it into taking sides--either decrying the bigots of Los Angeles' phony Landover Baptist Church ("Where the Worthwhile Worship") or tsk-tsking the prideful homosexuals for refusing to acknowledge their sinfulness when it was being so helpfully pointed out to them.

Apparently, we've reached the point where the opportunity for satirists to exploit this ludicrous rift has closed; satire is redundant (and well-nigh unrecognizable) when the real-life participants are so pathetically funny.

Given the often tiresome Tex-centric comedy that Shores has scored commercially with on stage and in film--scripts like Daddy's Dyin'...Who's Got the Will? and Sordid Lives--you're shocked during Southern Baptist Sissies by the raw displays of sorrow and self-loathing that compete with characters who have names like Odette Annette Barnette and Preston "Peanut" Leroy. Over five plays set in his home state, the Texas-raised Shores has burrowed deeper into his own painful past as an enthusiastic Southern Baptist adolescent praying for God to remove his romantic feelings toward other men. There are moments when this audience member felt discomfitingly like a voyeur, although not from lack of passing familiarity. Because I've known a few gay men tortured by Christian theologies, I've been witness to the damage that's done and sometimes never overcome. Huzzah to Shores for striking his lucrative Texas camp and building a foundation in a place that rattles us with its recognizability.

The L.A. show recently closed and has been booked, with much of the original cast, for an August run at McKinney Avenue Contemporary. I'd like to report that the playwright, who also serves as the production's director, has found a craftsmanship to match his new bravery with more complex characters and feeling. But Southern Baptist Sissies jumps around different times and places in the lives of four young men earnestly worshipping at a Southern Baptist church in Dallas, sometimes energetically and other times clumsily. Our narrator is Mark (Robert Lewis Stephenson), easily the angriest of the quartet, who reflects with a mixture of rage and nostalgia on his time in the congregation, including the stirring hymns and the comical but impassioned sermons of the preacher (Terry Brannon, who thunders during one Easter service, "There was no chocolate-covered bunny in the tomb with Jesus!"). Mark takes turns addressing the audience with his childhood chums, including first love T.J. (Ted Detwiler), who wants to forget their fooling around; Benny (Michael Taylor Gray, easily the best of the male leads at being poignant and funny simultaneously), whose flamboyant flourishes during devotionals hint at his show-biz future in high heels and makeup; and Andrew (Sam A. McConkey), for whom the men's underwear section of the Sears catalog is a gateway to chronic clubbing.

Counterpoint to their fraught development are the arrested comic stylings of Peanut (Leslie Jordan) and Odette (Ann Walker), a pair of nonpracticing Baptists who drink nightly at the same unnamed gay bar and lament the state of their lives. Shores told the Los Angeles Times that many gay Baptist boys he knew wound up habitual (and habitually disappointed) bar patrons, thus self-fulfilling the prophecy of "the homosexual lifestyle" being a dead end. This is one of the more sophisticated themes in Southern Baptist Sissies--how people on both sides of the aisle who truly want to help wind up burying you deeper in your dilemma. The Baptists want to rescue our protagonists from an essential part of themselves; their transition into the arms of the gay community happens in clubs and bars, the kind of scene in which no one--homo or hetero--has much chance of meeting long-term friends and lovers.

Overall, Southern Baptist Sissies is performed with professional fervor and deft timing sensitive to its constant mood changes. But length is a problem; at more than two and a half hours with intermission, the whiplash alternating between suffering and comic relief becomes simply wearisome. The playwright-director wants to show the divergent and extreme reactionary paths that grow from Baptist indoctrination, but he hasn't carved out enough lucid details to individualize the foursome at the play's center. Benny may have become a drag queen, and T.J. a fire-breathing seminary student, but their early experiences in this show's pews are similar enough to make us feel that the same story is being repeated ad nauseum. The point is made so effectively in the first act that, during the second, Shores and his performers squander the emotional capital they've earned from us. And I wish Shores had written more thoughtfully so that the attraction of many gay men to the pageantry and ritual of religious services might illuminate some of the rites of gay male urban culture. He hints at this when Stephenson, as Mark, says, "Let's face it, Jesus is hot," and goes on to explain why Christ was his first crush. This is meaty stuff, an insightful collision between the sacred and the sexual. I wanted more. How do drag queens function as high priestesses? What's the similarity between bodies pressed close together on a crowded dance floor and under church rafters, swaying and singing with the choir?

In the end, the playwright and director seems to pursue nothing more artful than the clearly expressed consequences of the treatment that gays and lesbians receive from family, religious leaders and others who claim to be working in their best interests. If so, I think he should consider slicing off a couple of characters and anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes; brevity and concision can only benefit the impact of his message.

If Southern Baptist Sissies lures people into the theater who don't normally attend--as I suspect it has, given a word-of-mouth potential that the title alone bestows--and more important, if it attracts some haunted young man of faith and tells a story that he's been unable to vocalize for himself (and he doesn't mistake the bar life criticized in the play as the only social option in 2001), then bravo: Del Shores and his actors will have succeeded in a practical way that most art never does. But in its current incarnation, Southern Baptist Sissies has the chaotic, repetitive and sometimes incoherent quality of a sincere confession delivered for the first time.

It was a rowdy Sunday night at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, so raucous that at one point during the run of Sinbad the Sailor, someone on one of the front-row tables pulled a prop offstage--a severed limb--and tossed it at one of the actors like it was a handful of popcorn. I don't mention this to encourage further groundling behavior--the offender is lucky he or she wasn't chucked out the front door by management--but to give you a taste of the endurance and ingenuity that the performers had to draw upon to survive the night. Given the unrelenting barrage of puffy kernels, catcalls and fart noises (the last was popular with all sides of the theater), the actors were by the end relying more on endurance.

Director-playwright Dennis Millegan has woven a handful of genuinely funny gags evenly throughout the three acts, and he's landed two clever leads to anchor the conflict on both sides: hero Sinbad (Zaron White) and villain Al Karim (Donald McDonald). Because this Sinbad vaguely resembles Patrick Swayze with moussed-back hair and lantern jaw, Karim spends much of the evening teasing him as "the Ken doll" (not only for his looks, but for what Mattel's Adam lacks below the abdomen). Indeed, McDonald proves tireless until the final act, as he parried thrusts from both White and the ticketbuyers. White, meanwhile, had an inspired bit of business involving a bogus magical "Veil of Invisibility" provided him by Soothsayer Agnes (Gail Willingham); the fighting stops when Sinbad drapes this ragged shawl over his head, waves his blade around and smugly taunts confused assassins with, "Oh, look! Sinbad's sword is floating all by itself! What happened to Sinbad?!" I think more of the evening would've been this enjoyable if certain audience members realized the actors were a lot funnier than the audience itself was.

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