Proud Mary Theatre Reflects Southern Morality Through Cut-to-Bone Characters
By Steve Wong
As a son of the South and direct descendent of poor white trash, I have always said, “If you want to have a big ol’ family fight with hurt feelings served on a table full of covered Tupperware dishes, have a wedding or a funeral.”
Welcome to the “Sordid Lives” of the Ingram family in Winters, TX, where old lady Peggy Ingram has died after tripping over the wooden legs of her somewhat younger lover, Vietnam Vet G.W. They had been out drinking and honking tonking, and ended up in a seedy motel to do you know what. Oh, the shame of it all!
Everyone is pretty upset, popping pills, snapping rubber bands to quit smoking, and snapping at each other over the least little thing. Things like daughter LaVonda (Elizabeth Colson) wants to bury Mama with a fur stole despite temperatures of about 108 degrees, and daughter Latrelle (Samona McMillan), and is dead set against burying an expensive stole and is desperately seeking the support of Aunt Sissy (Lori Lee), who’s really more like another sister, but ain’t really getting it.
From then on, it’s a downhill slide into off-color hysterics, true confessions (My mama used to read a magazine called True Confessions.), and the homecoming of Brother Boy, who has spent the past 20-something years in the looney bin for being a crossdressing homosexual. Poor guy, he completely failed at de-homosexualized therapy and did so poorly with his masturbation exercises. But if you stand back and squint your eyes a bit, he looks just like Tammy Wynette in her early years.
The cult classic play “Sordid Lives,” by the acclaimed Del Shores, is the current production of Proud Mary Theatre in Spartanburg, which was once one of the South’s great cotton mill towns. The genteel social climbers would rather you say “textile” town. It is playing on the basement stage of the Artists Collective on East Main Street. Proud Mary is the first and only LGBTQ+ theatre in South Cackalacky, and proud she should be for the audacity to stage a play that cuts so close to the fried chicken bone that neighbors are probably talking about local decency laws. It has a mighty fine cast of local thespians (maybe/maybe not lesbians?), who are working under the direction of Scott Waddell and Producer Sandy Staggs, the founder of Proud Mary.
You might remember that Mr. Shores actually graced our upstanding community a few years ago, when Mr. Staggs launched a fringe festival. If you’re thinking about a “surrey with a fringe on top,” think again. Talk about a hoot! Had a real nice drag show and some other out-of-the-closet entertainment for the public’s consumption. Oh, how the tongues did wag about the lip syncing drag queen. Mr. Shores is very well known in certain circles for his plays and movies often about the South’s inhospitality to the Bubbas and Sistas of different sexual persuasions. Hope you saw when Proud Mary did Southern Baptist Sissies, another of Mr. Shore’s plays. No matter what people say about Mr. Shores, he’s good at what he does and has the track record and mainstream awards to prove it. The 2000 play “Sordid Lives,” which went on to be movie (staring the likes of Olivia Newton-John, Beau Bridges, Delta Burke, and Leslie Jordan) and a TV series, received three wins from the highfalutin Drama-Logue: Best Production, Best Playwriting, Best Direction. So there!
“Sordid Lives” is a laugh-out-loud character-driven story about desperate people in desperate times. If you’re southern born and reared, I feel sure you already know these characters, might even be related to them by blood; might be one yourself. Most of them don’t have the ways and means to better themselves, so they stubbornly embrace who they are and dare anyone else to throw shade on their version of a Pride Parade.
Some do try to escape the cycle of unwed mothers, ne’er-do-well husbands, and closeted sissy boys. Take for example, Ty Williamson, played by Zachary Urban. He’s the son of Latrelle of the respectable polyester persuasion, and he’s a gay actor who goes through mental health therapists (27 and counting) like my Mama eating fantail shrimp at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. As the folks back home wring their hands over Peggy’s titillating demise, Ty seriously struggles with coming out to those he holds dear. Easy-on-the-eye Zachary does a great job as the voice of unreason that sets the stage for each act. He’s a Sparkle City native with acting credits with USC Upstate Theatre, Spartanburg Little Theatre, and the Upstate Shakespeare Festival. He was last seen cavorting with Proud Mary in The Boys in th Band.
Shoutouts to the strong women in Sordid Lives. Challenged with names like Noleta, Latrelle, and LaVonda, actresses Jada LaShay Bell, Samona McMillan, and Elizabeth Colson work hard to brand their characters: the squirely wife of G.W., Mrs. I. Wannabe Respectable, and Ms. I. Donta Care. Jada was last seen in the Proud Mary production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. She is from Gaffney and has been seen in some meaty roles, such as Mattie Fae in August: Osage County. Samona comes from a theatre family and even brushed shoulders with the big-time as an extra in Disney’s Goodbye Miss Fourth of July and an episode of America’s Most Wanted. And, Elizabeth is a Clemson grad with a degree in performing arts and credits in London, Chicago, and South Carolina. She was Trudy in Proud Mary’s Boy.
Never to be forgotten for opening this show under nicotine withdrawal, is the ever-enduring Sissy, little sister to the deceased, played by Lori Lee. Lori has a long, long list of professional accomplishments, spanning the globe. When she’s not acting and singing in England, Italy, Ireland, Austria or Canada, you’ll find her in the chancel choir at Spartanburg’s Trinity United Methodist Church.
Other very notable performances by women are Patty Bloomer, the flakey barfly Juanita; Susie Kocher, the evil and horny Dr. Eve; and Jessie Cantrell, who plays Bitsy Mae, who like, Ty, transitions the story line from scene to scene but through song. Love the title song, Sordid Lives, and the responsive “Bitch!” that everyone yells.
Not to be outdone by a bunch of tight skirts, the men actors and their characters shine like lockerroom lights after a Friday night high school football game. As the man who killed his lover with his wooden legs is G.W., played by Mark Monaghan, who is now having his first experience with Proud Mary. His list of theatre credits is quite long with acting and singing roles in Greater Tuna; Vanya, Sonya, Masha, & Spike; The Full Monty; Hello, Dolly!; The Sound of Music; and Damn Yankees. Ken Snart plays the remorseful bartender Wardell, who back in the day beat the crap out of Brother Boy for being gay. He’s a Wisconsin transplant with acting and singing credits in The Music Man, Oklahoma, West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz, and The Miracle Worker. Staggs takes on the role of Odell, Wardell’s brother, a man preoccupied with string and bloated pigs. These guys create one of the play’s funniest scenes, when the vengeful women toting guns make them strip down to their boxers and tighty whities, don ladies’ undergarments, add tacky make-up, and dance cheek to cheek.
Last but never to be forgotten is Director Waddell in the privitoral role of Brother Boy. Mr. Waddell is commended on many levels for bringing down the house with his drag portrayal of a good-natured and victimized gay man wasting away in a crazy house. It would be too easy for Mr. Waddell to show bitterness over his character’s plight. Instead, through good acting, he becomes a man seeking acceptance by and a good time with those he loves. He flames like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of shame, avoidance, violence, and hate to become a rare and beautiful bird going home to roost, holding no real grudges against those who shut him out of family and society. But given the opportunity, he can hold his own against his own, even his dead Mama.
For the faint of heart, there is a sprinkling of four-letter words throughout the dialog, like my own Mama used to sprinkle black pepper on deviled eggs — just to spice things up. I recommend that you — that everyone — take this opportunity to look at the world through the smudged lens of Southern hospitality and morality. What you see might surprise you. You might even see yourself.
Sordid Lives continues through Saturday, August 21. Tickets are very limited due to Covid-capacity limits. Mask are Required for entry. Tickets available at proudmarytheatre.com.