Theatre in the Park concludes its three-shows-in-three-weeks season opener with an important work by playwright Del Shores titled Southern Baptist Sissies. The work depicts the lives of four boys growing up in the church in rural Texas. The crux of the play: all four are gay. The work attempts to depict how each of the four copes with the dilemma of how to get close to God if God considers you an abomination. Directed by Triangle native David Henderson, artistic director of Honest Pint Theatre, Southern Baptist Sissies follows these four souls from age eight to adulthood, and shows us the utter lack of support they receive from their church. Each of the four follows a different path into adulthood, none of which is very satisfying. Each of the four seems to be fighting alone against overwhelming opposition for confirmation as a gay man.
Shores' work depicts how a truly misunderstood facet of society grows up in a world in which they are not only despised but also made to feel that they have no right to be here. It is a powerful and honest portrayal of gay life in a world that doesn't consider gays, as much as everyone else, should have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The work has a narrator of sorts, Mark (Brent Blakesley), who seems to be the prism through which we see these four lives. It is his memories we see for the most part: growing up "different;" singing in the church choir; listening to a benevolent but obtuse pastor, Dr. Bob Harris, who rains down fire and brimstone on anyone who is outside his own little world view, be it gays, Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Asians, etc. It may be noted that this is a particularly monochrome cast; folks who attend the Calvary Baptist Church in Texas are only of the "right" kind of people. Mark tells us just how each of his three compatriots and he has managed through the years to be where they are not welcome.
The trio of Mark's friends are: T.J. (Benoit Sabourin), who grows up in a military, single-parent household; Andrew (Thomas Porter), who attempts to simply conceal his true identity, especially from his mother (Diane Petteway, who plays all the Moms); and Benny (Edward Freeman), whose delicate nature and natural flamboyance drive him into the realm of Drag Queen. It is T.J. who was Mark's first love, but T.J. buried himself in the Southern Baptist tradition, denied his natural state, and tried to forget he ever believed he was a "faggot." Benny, who was always the most effeminate of the four, joins the cast of a gay bar called the Rose Room as Iona Traylor and sings three different songs over the course of the show. Andrew is the quietest of the four, and tries to live as best he can, closeted though he must be. Providing a running commentary as a part of their conversation are two denizens of the Rose Room, Odette Annette Barnett (Martie Todd Sirois) and Preston "Peanut" Leroy (Chris Milner). Odette is an aging white-trash Texas redneck in search of her long-lost brother; Peanut is an aging queen who finds Odette to be a charming companion. Rounding out the cast is pianist Brent Simpson, who provides a running undercurrent to the goings-on in the Rose Room as Houston, and also plays the choir pianist, Brother Chaffey.
Mark was the one who seemed the most straightforward in his approach to life. He kept up a running commentary on the church and how it could not even acknowledge him, how the pastor "lied;" and how he had to leave a church which referred to him as "an abomination." He writes poetry, has a regular column in a local newspaper, and seemed to have, of the four, the most realistic, albeit angry, outlook on life. Mark is the voice of reason, railing against the inherent bigotry of the Church and lamenting the different and oddly unsatisfying paths his compatriots have taken. It is not until one of the four takes his own life that Mark finally learns to accept the life he has been dealt.
Southern Baptist Sissies is an astonishingly honest and brutally candid portrayal of gay life in the twentieth century, before Gay Pride and "coming out" became more normalized. Henderson has assembled an amazing, compact, and effective cast of nine for this production. Brent Blakesley gave a marvelously realistic performance as Mark; he kept the show on an even keel and supplied bite to the necessary commentary exposing the Baptist Church as completely inadequate to serve the needs of the gay community. With exceptional portrayals by all this cast, and a standout performance by Edward Freeman as Benny, David Henderson has created a true-to-life depiction of what it was like growing up gay in the Bible Belt.
But be forewarned: Southern Baptist Sissies contains brief nudity, adult situations, and strong language. It is too honest a portrayal to skirt such issues. But these are timely, realistic, and brutally honest characters that deserve your attention. Be quick; there are only three more performances this weekend.
Southern Baptist Sissies continues through Sunday, September 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.