Sunday, April 27, 2014

Del Shores' SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES: a very funny, moving, filmed play about growing up gay

One of the characters in SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES -- a new work from perhaps America's best and funniest writer/filmmaker to tackle the gay issue, Del Shores -- notes in passing that this is all preaching to the con-verted. Maybe so. But, Jesus Christ, what a sermon! TrustMovies admits that, going into this two-hour-and-18-minute movie, it did seem initially like been-there/done-that. But very quickly the story and characters take on the particularities of lives lived. If you're gay, or if you're close to anyone who is, I suspect that Southern Baptist Sissies will very quickly become irresistible.

Shores, shown at left, has literally filmed his play, which was done some time back theatrically at the Zephyr Theater in Southern California. But like a smart filmmaker, he uses the camera gracefully and cleverly, coming in for close-ups and moving it wisely to take us from scene to scene, location to location. We see, and in fact become part of, the theater audience, and yet the end result is more of a movie than anything else. But it's a movie that features live acting. And what acting!

Southern Baptist Sissies tells the story of four boys -- above, left to right: Benny (William Belli), Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery), TJ (Luke Stratte-McClure), and Mark, our narrator and more-or-less lead character (Emerson Collins) -- beginning at age twelve and taking them through their teenage into their young-adult years. They are gay, and they are part of the Southern Baptist Church, and how each boy handles his situation -- with irony/anger, pretense that it doesn't exist, constant and worthless prayer, or full-out embrace of his homosexuality -- becomes the full tale we experience.

Along with our boys, we meet their parents (what's left of them -- mostly women seem the care-givers here), their pastor (played well by Newell Alexander, above), whose church takes literally center stage, and also a couple of hilarious denizens -- below, left, Dale Dickey, and right, Leslie Jordan -- of a local gay bar where one of our quartet ends up working/singing as a female impersonator.

All this is woven more and more expertly as the play moves on. Via comic repetition, storytelling, history and depth of characterization, we come to care so much about all these people. Even those deluded church folk. Mr. Shores strips away the cant and nonsense from those who must take the Bible word-for-word, and yet I think he still maintains some caring for these folk as human beings. There's plenty of anger here but not, I think, much hatred.

What there is plenty of in Southern Baptist Sissies is entertainment and feeling. Every single actor is terrific in capturing the specifics of his or her character. Best of all is the young Mr. Belli, who may never again in his career get a role (roles, really) as good as he's found here. Few actors do. Mr. Belli plays the adorable blond Benny (left, in third photo from top), as well as the chanteuse (above and below, right) that he morphs into as an adult. He is simply wonderful in both roles, singing and acting up a storm with not a moment that rings false. And yet he never seems to be stealing the scene. He fits right into the ensemble.

It is difficult to explain exactly how Mr. Shores manages to keeps us glued for so long and so tightly. But he certainly understands, as the best dramatists do, how to deepen character via situation and event, until we're hanging on every word and deed.

I am a bit loathe to recommend this one as highly as I have clearly already done. As I say, we're preaching, I guess, to the choir. But if we take what Jesus himself actually preached as any kind of guide -- love and forgiveness first: the Beatitudes were all about blessings for what one is and does, as opposed to the Commandments, which were all about Don't -- one imagines that, were our pal J.C. able to view Southern Baptist Sissies, he would heartily approve.

The filmed play/musical has been touring the country for some time now, playing various cities coast to coast. Next up are Sioux Falls, SD, at the Club David on May 4th; Sedona, NM, at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre on May 8th; and an extended run in Raleigh, NC, at The Rialto, beginning July 18th. As more dates appear, I'll post them here.

There will also be a DVD coming eventually -- as well as, I hope, stream-ing via various links. Keep watch here, and I'll try to update as new information arrives.


Thom P said...

I would buy a DVD of this in a New York minute. I have loved every project I've seen written by Del Shores. And I guess I'll have to expand my NetFlix DVD account to include streaming just to see this.

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for posting, Thom, but don't expand that account just yet, as the movie/play is not yet available on Netflix streaming. I suspect it will be eventually, though.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other good reasons to expand your Netflix account, and I try to cover a couple of these with each new week. (I'd like to cover more of what's streamable and good on Netflix, but at this point, time does not permit.)