BY STEVE WONG
Tears – both real and make believe – were shed during the opening weekend of the play “Southern Baptist Sissies” in Spartanburg. The tears were those of four gay and anguished young men who grew up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone; mothers who would not accept sons they cannot control; the besotted odd couple of an aging gay man and his trailer trash friendgirl; and several people in the audience who were sitting in the crowded pews of what was once a Baptist church, but is now the home of a nonprofit arts agency, the West Main Artists Co-Operative.
In this soul-searching comedy, tears were about the only thing the play’s characters shared in common as they struggled in vain to understand and accept what it means to be gay in the South, in the church, and in search of answers to questions about sexual orientation that many people would rather just not have to ask. But shining a glaring stage light on these emotional and life-changing questions is what “Proud Mary” – the state’s first and only theatre company devoted exclusively to LGBTQ+ stories – is all about. This play wraps up Proud Mary’s first season that is ending on an unsettling note that painfully resonates with any backsliding southerner – he, she, they, or whover.
This powerful and well-known-in-the-gay-community play bounces to and fro from the boys’ tormented teenage years to their tormented lives as young adults. Along the way, each boy confronts or denies his sexual orientation in the face of an ultra-conservative upbringing and what they are told is an unforgiving God.
Giving the audience much-needed breaks from the rather long, plentiful, and insightful monologues are several hysterical bar scenes where the aging gay man Peanut and the rudderless drinking buddy Odette solve the problems of the world through drunken banter and excellent insight into the human condition. Peanut and Odette are laugh-out-loud funny and pathetic at the same time. They are living the lives the boys are destined to follow unless something on a world-shaking scale happens — like believing God loves you no matter who you love.
Peanut is played by Sandy Staggs, the founder of “Proud Mary” and a most convincing over-the-hill gay man with a sense of humor. FYI… he’s the man who makes all this gay theatre stuff in South Carolina happen. Odette is played by Brigitte Staggs, a USC Upstate graduate in theatre performance. She has been seen in several Upstate productions and is on course for a career on stage. As Odette, she is the perfectly tacky girl you would not want to take home to meet your mother, but she’s one hellva of soulmate with whom to share a life of woes and a bottle of booze until last call.
“Southern Baptist Sissies” was written by Del Shores and first produced in 2000 in Los Angeles. This is Shores’s most personal and cathartic work, but not his most well known. As a gay writer, director, actor, and producer, he is best known for “Sordid Lives” and “Daddy’s Dyin’: Who’s Got the Will?” Nevertheless, “Southern Baptist Sissies” has a solid place in both theatre and cinema, having won several specialized and regional awards, such as “Outstanding LA Theatre Production” in 2001 by GLADD Media Awards; Best Direction in 2000 by LA Weekly Awards; Best Playwriting in 2000 from Back Stage West Garland Awards; and Best Production, Best Director, and Best Playwriting in 2000 from the Robby Awards.
After much ado, it was made into a film in 2014, taking a respectable 81 percent audience score by Rotten Tomatoes.
With limited resources and support in a red county in a red state, “Proud Mary” can be very proud for producing “Southern Baptist Sissies,” a show that is sure to make many respectable Bible-thumping Republicans uncomfortable (if not downright disgusted), if they dare sit thigh-to-thigh among the sinners in a crowded and dark room, where bare male bottoms are seen (and seen humping), an African American male stripper tempts an impressionable and confused young man, and four-letters are said with aplomb without batting a false eyelash. So, if you’re not easily offended by a little nudity and a lot of bad words, you should definitely take a walk on the wild side of life and see this play as it continues its run in Upstate South Carolina at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship church in Greenville, Aug. 10-12.
In this local production, Director Barry Whitfield and Costume Designer Brook Nelson know what all good southern men wear on the outside: pressed khaki pants with a pressed white shirt and tie. I question, however, if their fashion-forward underwear was intentional or just lacking in tighty-whities. But as this play clearly demonstrates, it’s what’s on the outside that really counts.
The lead character Mark is played by Brandon Mimnaugh, a Spartanburg native and graduate of Boiling Springs High School and USC Upstate. He has been seen in several local theatrical productions by Spartanburg Little Theatre and the Shoestring Players. He is now a social media manager for an ad agency in Greenville. Mark is the voice of the play, but it is a voice that is often ignored by the establishment. Literally, no matter what he says in response to the litany of hypocrisy spewed from the pulpit, he cannot be heard. Mark is an overthinker, a character trait that dooms him and seemingly other gay people to a lifetime of self doubt. Mimnaugh has that I’m-really-trying nice guy character down pat.
Mark’s boyhood buddies and fellow queers are TJ, played by Dylan Hooper, the closeted sissy who refuses to accept himself; Andrew, played by Damion Deslaurier, the geeky sissy who tries to pray away his gayness; and Benny, played by Andy Lecture, the sissy who embraces his gayness to become the drag queen Iona Traylor.
At a tender age of early onset adolescence, Mark realizes that he truly loves TJ, but TJ is in a never-ending cycle of denial. As boys in a sleepover, they begin to discover their sexuality, but it is all just too much for TJ to process — eventually to the point of violence. Hooper, who is a Greenville native studying Spanish and psychology at Wofford College, walks a fine line as a closeted gay. The urge is always there, but through the grace of God and false love of a girl, he is able to look anyone in the eye and deny himself. Duality in an actor is a good thing.
Andrew is by far the play’s most tragic character, and Deslaurier tears out the hearts of everyone who witnesses his fall from grace. Here is a geeky young man who hopes to pray away his sin, but who is tempted too far. Deslaurier, a 22-year-old Spartanburg native has now crossed a line: He has acted in high school, college, and in community theatre. From here on, watch for him on stage for his depth of character is outstanding.
Finally, but by no mean lastly, there is Benny, the one boy/man who in so many choice words, said, “Hell with this, I’m going to be whoever I am.” And from there he becomes the most celebrated drag queen Iona Traylor (as in I Own A Trailer). Lecture gets to put his Furman University education in music to work in his role as Iona Traylor, and his singing talent is surprising and much appreciated. And, he looks damn good in drag, if it weren’t for the hair on his arms I saw when he was up close and personal with the audience.
Completing the church cast is the clean-cut and charismatic Preacher, played by Doug Egge; and the upstanding and conservative mother, played by Kate Roark. Egge is well known for his local theatrical work, having played many wonderful roles on many local stages. As a charismatic evangelist, Egge pulls off a rather amazing bit of acting: We don’t hate him. But we should. Egge has that special acting talent of being totally believable — an impassioned preacher of the true gospel, while unknowing wrecking the lives of his followers. We know he is wrong, but he is a true believer, and, I guess, that is his redemption. Or, Egge is just a fine actor.
Roark has returned to the gay stage as the mother of the boys. She plays a different mother for each boy, but that in itself tells us how a mother’s acceptance or lack thereof can greatly impact a boy’s life. Roark has now appeared in (or directed) several “Proud Mary” productions, impacting the lives of many in a most positive way.
And USC Upstate graduate and actor Dexter Simmons dazzles as the aforementioned stripper who also sells raffle tickets before the show. While Richard Huss entertains the crowd playing Baptist church hymns on the piano.
If, dear reader, you have stayed with me in this rather long review of a small play, thank you for your indulgence. It is not often that we here in the Deep South stretch our hearts and minds to an attempt understand how we hurt the ones we love. “Proud Mary” is giving us that opportunity. You don’t have to be gay; you don’t have to agree with the gay community, but you must accept it no matter how disturbing, how funny, how disgusting, how beautiful, how foreign it might seem. “Southern Baptist Sissies” is a reflection of who we are, whether we like it or not.
“Southern Baptist Sissies” continues Aug. 10-12 at the Greenville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 1135 State Park Road in Greenville: Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available at http://www.proudmarytheatre.com