Losing my religion: Southern Baptist Sissies at Above the Stag Theatre

The Boyz Award-winning Above the Stag Theatre presents the UK premiere of Southern Baptist Sissies from Wednesday (8 Mar), a story of four boys growing up gay in a religious community in Dallas, Texas. Here we speak to the play’s director Gene David Kirk and introduce you to its characters, plus Above the Stag’s Jon Bradfield speaks with writer Del Shores.

Hi Gene, how would you describe the play Southern Baptist Sissies?

The main thrust of the play is about four boys growing up in a religious community in Dallas, Texas. Each of them ‘deal’ with being gay in their own way and the outcome for each is so different as religion, family, sexuality and social mores define, shape and affect each boy. It’s set in a Baptist church and gay drag bar, and other characters include a trailer trash mother, pious mother, fire and brimstone preacher, lonely older gay bar-hugging loner and an remorseful alcoholic. There are plenty of laughs with Del Shores along the way but, ultimately, the boys are defined by the world of the people they meet and the claustrophobic pressures of living and being in the community.

What is the overriding message of the play?

Simply put, the overriding message is hope.

What was it like for you growing up gay?

I served in the Royal Air Force for 14 years at a time when it was still illegal to be gay. If exposed, I would have been imprisoned for a time, dishonourably discharged and my pension withdrawn. It was just impossible to be gay in any way! I understand the burning want and need of the boys. In the play it is religion, in my story it was bigotry and military law causing the repression and pain.

How did you first come to hear of the story? 

Peter Bull, Artistic Director and Producer at Above the Stag Theatre, asked me to read the play last December to gauge my reaction and to seek my thoughts on the piece for his theatre. I was totally drawn in from beginning to end and pleaded with him to allow me to direct it for him. He said yes and so here we are. I am so grateful to him, as always. It’s tempting to say Sissies feels particularly relevant at the moment, with all the noise around Trump and the fear that hard won rights could be rolled back. But it’ll always be relevant – so many religious communities have struggled for so long, in so many places, just to accommodate gay lives. Churches like the one in the play have a huge authority, a moral authority. That has a massive, damaging impact on young people growing up gay. Del Shores comes from the Southern Baptist community, his dad was a preacher, so he’s writing from the inside. It’s specific and it’s authentic. And speaking more selfishly, it’s a gift of a play to direct because it’s so theatrical. It’s about four boys growing up into young men, so actors play their characters across a range of ages, and others play several roles. Del knows what he’s doing, he knows that audiences like big memorable characters, and that we need laughs and a bit of razzmatazz mixed in with the heavy stuff. It deserves a special production and we’re going all out on that.

Meet the writer of Southern Baptist Sissies

Above the Stag’s Jon Bradfield talks to Southern Baptist Sissies writer Del Shores about gay sex on TV and coming out late.

Del, what sparked the play?

My dad was a Southern Baptist preacher. I didn’t have to reach very far. Each of the four sissies in the play is part of me, with Mark really representing the questioning gay writer. Matthew Shepard’s murder was also a huge influence. I was having debates with a family member about a picture I saw in an article about the killers – a picture of Jesus on the cross [Shepard was left tied to a fence after being tortured]. My mind started wondering if those boys justified their heinous act because of sermons like those I heard growing up. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” was quoted back to me, and I responded “I’m not sure at a young age, some can make that separation.”

And you didn’t come out particularly young did you? You were married with kids…

I came out right after my 36th birthday! I was married to a woman for nine years, the mother of my girls who were two and five years old when I came out.

Have churches like the one in the play got any more liberal towards homosexuality since you wrote it?

There are many more affirming churches in the States these days. But, because of the progress of gay rights, many like the one in the play have reared their ugly heads and now are in the news again. Google ‘Focus On The Family’ and ‘Franklin Graham’ and you will see how hatred is still being spewed in the name of the Lord. I wish my play were now a period piece. It’s not.

British politics is pretty secular even though we have a state church. We wouldn’t hear a politician saying “God bless the United Kingdom”, for example. Do you think religion plays a genuinely big role in American society or is it more that you’re happier talking about God as a metaphor? I think you’re happier than us generally at using big, rhetorical language…

Oh it plays a huge part. The African-American community is very religious, as is the South. When you hear pop artists thanking God in speeches, they really are actually thanking their God. Religion is huge in our society. Just look at the Republicans, they’ve highjacked the religious right into their party. The younger generation are using their minds more, but still, many religious young folks too.

And realistically, is religion always going to mean anti-gay?

Parts of it, but bigots and antigay assholes are dying. Hopefully at some point they will be the minority and history will look at their bigotry with the same disbelief as we do on segregation and slavery.

What gay or otherwise LGBT-themed plays do you like? 

Oh there are so many! Here are a few: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Boys in the Band, Torch Song Trilogy, The Normal Heart, Angels In America, Cabaret, The Laramie Project, The Young Man From Atlanta, Boy From Oz… I could go on.

You wrote for the US version of Queer As Folk, which started out as a British series, which in its very first episode put rimming on prime time terrestrial TV – so it has a prestige! Was the show a big deal in the States, and how do you think it stands up now?  

It was my favourite television job. I loved the British version, but it was only eight episodes, that first brilliant season, and then just two the second. We had five seasons and so we could really take the characters on a journey. They could grow, evolve and grow up. It was a huge hit here and worldwide. Many claim it saved Showtime and was their highest rated series.

We wanted to tell the truth about our community; show the good, the bad, the ugly, the sex. It was the first time that gay characters got to have sex. And they had lots! My daughters were little girls when it was on the air and recently my youngest – now 24 –  binged watched it. I was a new hero. So, yes, I do believe it stands up – and yet is wonderfully historical at the same time.

Meet the characters of Southern Baptist Sissies

The Sissies

Mark Mark: Lee Fuller is the outspoken narrator who dreams of an ideal world of equality and happiness for all.

Andrew: A sensitive young man who’s inability to understand what he is feeling leaves him disillusioned. No matter how much he prays for God to take the ’sissy’ away, nobody seems to be listening.

Benny: The biggest sissy of them all. Completely ready to embrace himself, despite other people’s opinions, he becomes the spectacular drag glamazon, Miss Iona Traylor.

TJ: TJ Brooks is a conflicted man who clings to the Bible for his salvation. 

The Adults

The Preacher: A fervent and devout preacher, Reily is unwavering and passionate in his sermons and prayer. He loves a bit of “fire and brimstone” – Amen, praise the Lord!

Peanut: Preston LeRoy (aka Peanut) is an alcoholic, former Southern Baptist in his mid 50s. He spends most nights at his local gay bar desperately looking for love, but almost always ends up paying for sex.

The Mothers: Everybody’s mother, from trailer trash through happy-clappy Baptist to lonely widow.

Odetter: Life has been somewhat bumpy for Odette Annette Barnett, usually due to unfortunate incidents she’d rather not discuss. She now spends most of her time as a barfly in the local gay nightclub.

Southern Baptist Sissies is at Above the Stag Theatre, 17 Miles Street, Vauxhall, London, SW8 1RZ.

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