Southern Baptist Sissies
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
May 12, 2012
Self-hatred has greatly influenced the four male lead characters in Del Shores' play Southern Baptists Sissies. They may very well have remained where they grew up, in Dallas ("the buckle of the Bible belt"), were it not for their sexuality. In later life, they sometimes miss the church that offered them so much hope when they were young.
Mark Lee Fuller (Tyler Etheridge) narrates from the present time, back to these characters' experiences in the year 2000. He leads us through several meaningful church rituals, such as Andrew (Aaron Wester), a boy who has lost his mother, accepting Jesus as his personal savior. At one point, Mark is not sure that he wants to accept Jesus; however, his mother (Eileen Maher) promises that TJ (Jack Philips Moore) can sleep over if they both go through the church ceremony. Since Mark and TJ are attracted to each other, they jump at the opportunity.
In between the various flashbacks, the flamboyant Preston "Peanut" LeRoy (Daniel McHenry) and the non-lesbian-but-just-there-because-she's-an-alcoholic Odette Annette Barnett (Rebecca Smith) sit in a strip club reminiscing about growing up in the South. They happen to know the Dallas young men from way back.
The play provides many heartbreaking scenes as well as a surprising counterbalance of opinions about homosexuality. Later in life TJ publicly repents his gay experiences, marries a woman, and takes every chance to renounce Gay Pride Parades. He asks if those people are happy taking drugs and wandering around half naked. Even in these moments, he is clearly fighting what he feels inside.
Benny (Anthony Orneta) has survived his Southern Baptist upbringing by becoming a lip-synching drag queen. He is appreciated for performing classics such as Dolly Parton's "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That" and Tammy Wynette's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad"; he also enjoys channeling the "Dick-xie Chicks." He has few kind words for evangelist Pat Robertson, preferring to live his life in happy defiance.
Young Mark cannot blindly go along with his church's views. He is seen asking his mother if his favorite teacher, Miss Lerman, will go to hell just because she is Jewish. Referencing two passages from the book of Leviticus which deal with "abominations," he ironically remarks "God hates you just as much for eatin' shrimp as for suckin' c@#k." Despite the hatred projected from TJ and others, Mark, Benny and Andrew have found a way to be themselves.
Director Elmer King and Brainspunk Theater are to be commended for bringing Del Shores' 2000 Los Angeles hit to New York. People outside of the South now have a chance to see the contradictory and inescapable presence of Baptist religion in daily life. The humor obviously hit home for the audience, while the questions about self-esteem and being an outsider are surely universal. The cast, also including preacher and stripper characters (Collin Biddle, Evan Closser, Lamar Lewis, Gaston Franco) are refreshingly three-dimensional and free of caricature. Timothy Meola's set respectfully represents a church with a bar in the corner and a fabulous pianist (Evan Closser) to set the mood.