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Southern Baptist Sissies

Del Shores
Above the Stag Theatre

Stephen Parker as the Preacher Credit: Gaz at pbgstudios.com
James Phoon as Benny, Jason Kirk as Mark and Hugh O'Donnell as Andrew Credit: Gaz at pbgstudios.com
Jason Kirk as Mark and Daniel Klemens as TJ Brooks Credit: Gaz at pbgstudios.com
Julie Ross as Odette, Simon David (musician) and Don Cotter as Preston "Peanut" Leroy Credit: Gaz at pbgstudios.com

Since Del Shores wrote this play in 2000, the LGBT community has, in some places, gained greater rights and acceptance but that doesn’t make Southern Baptist Sissies any less relevant. There are still places where being gay is criminal, even carrying a risk of execution, often because of religious bigotry. Indeed, more liberal attitudes may have created a backlash of sectarianism, not least in the bible belt of the United States where this play is set.

Dramatist Del Shores, who grew up in Texas, is the son of Southern Baptist preacher, so he surely knows what he is writing about in presenting the stories of four Southern Baptist choirboys in a Dallas church where they are being indoctrinated by a preacher who stigmatises their feelings as evil.

In front of a cross flanked by the flags of the United States and of Texas, Stephen Parker as the preacher at the Calvary Baptist Church leads his choirboys in a rousing hymn, accompanied by Simon David as their organist. It’s a church where all are welcome, unless you are a sodomite.

As the Preacher quotes Scripture to condemn homosexuals, we get a glimpse into the lives of four of these boys. So innocent looking in their white gowns, they are the Southern Baptist Sissies.

While the Pastor preaches, one of them, Mark, interjects contrary comments. He becomes a kind of narrator as we glimpse these lads going through their teens and discovering their orientation. It’s not chronological and Gene David Kirk’s direction moves fluently between locations giving snapshot situations.

In this intimate theatre, Jason Kirk’s Mark established an immediate rapport with his audience and for some in this LGBT-focussed theatre it could well be their own voice speaking. His questioning mind seems to have found self-acceptance but not without struggle. “This,” he says of the church, “is where we learned to hate ourselves.”

He loved best friend TJ but, as they reach puberty, ”sleepover means you sleep,” his mother reminds him, and though TJ may share the same urges he denies them, expressing revulsion. Daniel Klemens gives his handsome jock TJ a sincerity that asks for understanding, underlining the pressures that force conformity on him. He finds conformity easier. Unlike Mark, he doesn’t question why breaking one rule condemns you but you can ignore another. Mark reads the small print: Leviticus makes eating shrimp as bad as cock sucking.

Andrew is a more troubled character, recognizing his gayness while praying to be free of it. Venturing into the gay scene, he seems to gain confidence but it goes when he gets home. Hugh O’Donnell’s gentle performance is understated but still full of anguish.

James Phoon plays Benny, self-aware and unashamed, expressing himself as he get older by flaunting his sexuality as a drag act, but he is totally charming, his honesty endearing.

Janet Price plays three of the boys’ mothers (TJ’s is dead), all different though all found sitting, often with their offspring, in the front row of the congregation / audience, directly under the gaze of the pastor who is surveying all of us.

This could so easily have been a PowerPoint presentation of stereotypical case studies but the performers make these characters real. Shores adds a sardonic edge by intercutting scenes in a bar where Julie Ross as alcoholic Odette and Don Cotter as limp-wristed old queen Peanut provide another level of comment disguised as light relief. Here, too, Benny can become glamorous Iona (and sing like a diva) and a male stripper, the spitting image of TJ Brooks (and the same well-muscled actor) could be the uptight jock’s true self.

Without detracting from the seriousness of its subject, Shores’s play is often very funny: an entertaining piece of theatre. It is surprisingly fair to the attitudes it is countering. Its preacher seems a good man: dangerously misguided, yes, but sincere in what he believes.

And there the play touches on an even wider problem when beliefs differ. It isn’t just homosexuals who won’t go to Heaven. One boy asks his mother what about those who never hear about Jesus. “No, they wont get there.” She acknowledges that isn’t fair—but that’s why we send missionaries to them. Who are the missionaries able to convince other cultures that homosexuals deserve acceptance and equality everywhere?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton