Leslie Jordan (center) with co-stars Willam Belli and Emerson Collins | Photo by Paul Boulon
The battle for marriage equality in the United States is raging on, and it seems small victories are being made daily. In my home state of Texas, Travis County (that's Austin, y'all) Judge David Wahlberg ordered County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to issue a marriage license for Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant. As anyone would expect, the same-sex wedding has been a point of contention in the state. To those outside of the South and even to those in the South, the controversy surrounding this decision simply doesn't make sense. To try and understand it, one simply needs to view Del Shores' evocative and GLAAD Award-winning drama Southern Baptist Sissies, which is available on DVD and VOD.
The filmed version of the live theater experience gives audiences a chance to a get up close and personal with the struggle to be anything less than perfect in the Southern Baptist church. Roughly 200 miles from Austin, the film is set in Dallas, Texas: "The belt buckle of the Bible belt," proclaims Mark in the film's opening dialogue. Over the course of the next two hours, we become privy to how four lives completely unravel due to the severity of discrimination from both the church and haughtily conservative politics of the South.
Originally written in 2000, more contemporary reviews of the play have claimed that the script seems outdated. "I found some parts a little incredulous," says Willam Belli, who stars as Benny in the film. "Then, I went back and saw the movie in Texas, where's it's set. For so many people, it's so personal to them because that still goes on down there. For me, that's crazy. I'm meeting 30-year-old men still in the closet, and I'm shocked," he elaborates. "I thought, 'How does this happen?' I never even had to come out. I have two gay aunts and two gay uncles in my family, so it was fine that I wanted to fuck all the kids in New Kids On the Block, you know. It was never an issue, but I guess I was really, really lucky. That kind of lead to an ignorance on my own part," he says. Belli adds, "It's an important story to be told because the stakes that are being portrayed in the play are still happening."
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In the world that Shores' characters inhabit, being gay is seen as being worse than being born with a cognitive disability. Benny's grandmother tells her pastor, "He's off. Not quite right. Not in a retarded way, but in a sissy way." Having recently relocated from the suburbs of Houston to Greater New York City, I can testify to the fact that this world is not a fiction. It is not a bygone era. It is alive and well. "There are LGBT youth growing up in conservative towns, communities, and families. While they see [what's happening with same-sex marriage] on the news, that's not the experience that they are having," says Emerson Collins, who stars as Mark, is one of the film's producers, and is originally from Spring, Texas. "Think how much more isolating that is to see the community advancing and feel like that's not something they're a part of," he explains when talking about the importance of this film being widely available. "It's important that we not forget that there are people who still struggle greatly with the coming out process because of religion."
Some people may turn their nose up at the title's use of the word "sissies," but it has a powerful purpose, and connects this story to a larger audience than the gay South. "Del [Shores] always loved the idea, and we refer to them as the sissies. Because there are certain aspects, and this is definitely not Southern, it's national, in historical gender identities and behavioral characteristics," says Collins. "It isn't even about being gay. There are effeminate heterosexual men," he explains. "The sort of limitations that we place on gender, behavior, and force people to sort of fit into rigid molds of what it means to be a man or a woman, masculine or feminine--they are absurd and ridiculous." To this point, in the play there is a theme of accepting everyone as they are and for who they are. That is the driving force behind Southern Baptist Sissies and what the work celebrates. "So, people who this isn't a specific experience for have still really enjoyed the message of the piece and the journey that it goes on," Collins points out.
Clearly, you don't have to be from the South or gay to relate to this story. "We screened the film at 28 film festivals and won audience awards at nine of them, including places like Chicago. So, even outside of the South there was a great response," Collins explains. This is perhaps most noticeable in Dale Dickey's Odette, a heterosexual alcoholic with a jetliner's worth of emotional baggage. Like the gay youth in the story, she exists on the fringes of society and is judged for who she is. The Southern Baptist church doesn't accept her "for reasons [she'd] rather not get into" she says. Opposite Leslie Jordan, Dickey's character peppers in laughs between the scenes where the boys come to terms with their sexuality, and these scenes are memorable for being both poignant and comical. "Watching Dale Dickey work is amazing. She doesn't even need words," Belli says.
The DVD of Southern Baptist Sissies gives audiences a somewhat novel way to experience the play and come into the theater. Through painstaking editing, the team behind this release took footage from four live performances and eight days of filming to create this uniquely live yet cinematic version of Shores' work. "When we edited it together, we had 15 camera angles for every line of dialogue," Collins tells Out. "That way the comedic sections are big and broad and the audience response is there. You see and feel them. Then, the dramatic pieces were from the film shoot, so they could be smaller performances and more authentically real and impactful."
Southern Baptist Sissies is available for purchase. Watch the trailer below: