Some of OKC’s best popular acting talent has come together to present “Southern Baptist Sissies” by Del Shores, best known for his play “Sordid Lives.” The dinner theatre production at The Boom in Oklahoma City, directed by Kenneth Benton, plays to sympathetic houses.
Shores’s play examines the self-hatred experienced by four gay men growing up in a Southern Baptist congregation in Dallas. The harsh critique of southern church traditions is focused on the kind of preaching that damages gay boys and men. This production is timely; not only was it recently revived in New York, but articles in HuffPost Religion have dealt with the question of whether certain forms of preaching are also forms of bullying.
The audiences at The Boom experience an environment where couples of any combination of genders can hold hands and interact comfortably. The audience is composed equally of those who can see how the show exposes the suffering of gay men raised in conservative congregations and those who can see the show as a reflection of their own lived experiences. Because the performance venue is in a bar, the audience is restricted to those over 21. This is just as well, since there is graphic sexual language, some nudity, and Sean Eckart as a delightfully active male stripper. Be prepared to have your assumptions about growing up gay in church, especially in the south, challenged or affirmed…or both.
In the narrative and coordinating role of the angry cynic Mark, Scotty Taylor ably carried much of the show. Jason McKelvy was strongly effective as TJ, a gay Christian holding on to denial with his fingernails. Doug Rankin was stunning as Benny, the lip-synching drag queen living in a (mostly) satisfying fantasy. Kaleb Bruza was movingly brilliant as the conflicted and fragile Andrew.
These four boys, whom we follow from pre-pubescence to adulthood, are influenced by the Preacher, rendered with pompous sincerity by Paul James, and their Mothers, who are all played distinctly by Courtney Hahne. Punctuating the events in the lives of the boys are the conversations of the two barflies, Odette and Peanut, rendered with richly alcoholic pathos by Lilli Bassett and Robert Matson. Eventually all of these lives intersect, with inevitably damaging results.
The second half of the play predictably manipulates the sympathies of the audience, and the ending can only feel contrived. Shores is apparently unwilling to hold on to the tough, ugly parts of life or to let us live with unresolved grief. The desperate effort to reach for hope out of misery at the end of the play is poorly structured and inevitably falls short, despite a herculean effort by the director and his able cast to keep it real and make it live.
For many, this flaw will not matter: those affected by the reality of abusive theology need the hope this production offers. The show offers clear insights into how traditional Christianity is experienced by gay boys and men; families may want to see the show for a deeper understanding of the gay men in their lives.
The technical limitations of the stage are used very effectively. Dark areas allow for simulated sex acts to seem both real and furtive—highlighting the shame that drives much of the action. At times the sound score overpowers the preacher, which makes following his sermons difficult.
“Southern Baptist Sissies” is running Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. through April 27 at The Boom, 2218 NW 39th Street, Oklahoma City. Tickets are $15 and can be reserved at www.tarsplace.com or purchased at the door. No one under 21 can be admitted to the performance venue.