25 February 2013


MUNCIE, IN—Southern Baptist Sissies, written by Del Shores and directed by Robby Tompkins, continues its run at Muncie Civic Theatre’s studio space through March 2. The show left me winded. I’m trying to understand its impact on me by writing about it. Too, I grasp at some way to say thank you for the ways theater can illuminate, quicken and confound. I mean these words to convey some sense of my gratitude.

SPOILER ALERT: These ruminations assume you’ve seen the show, and make little effort to conceal plot denouement.

Matters of Life and Death in Southern Baptist Sissies

I've been there, been there in the church when the preacher stands over the closed coffin and says, "We ask ourselves the why question—"why?"—over and over again. His death leaves us with a great sadness and a great many questions. We don't know why he chose to take his own life."

In that moment I wanted to stand up and shout. "Like hell we don't! Some of us have a pretty damn good idea why.” But I kept my mouth shut. I am well-schooled in repression.

We had known each other a long time, the deceased and I. We were not confidantes; we shared more in common than we were willing to admit, even to ourselves. We used denial, repression and self-induced unawareness to shield ourselves from self-knowledge.

Some of his story I pieced together after the fact, some of this is conjecture. I can't know with certainty what was going on inside him. Yet I've lived enough of his story to make an educated guess. He grew up in a church, family and society that told him in a thousand ways, "A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination." In a small town where everyone knew everyone else's business, he hid as best he could. He prayed, believed, served church and community. Thought it would go away. Hoped it was a phase. Tried to accept it as his cross to bear, the dark angel he had to wrestle to win his way to heaven. Deep down he hated himself. Hated how and who and what he was. Hated the constant struggle. Lived in fear of anyone ever finding out. And then someone did. His secret uncovered. About to be made public. How could he go on? He knew what awaited. He'd seen it before, most recently, in my case: drummed out of town, marriage up in smoke, career terminated, kicked out of the church, left friendless and alone.

He must have panicked. It happened so suddenly, so irrevocably—the discovery, threatened exposure, fateful decision. Did he talk to anyone first? Wish he would have called me. Wish I’d have known to call him. I heard the report on the local news. His body had been found. Damn, damn, damn.

This is where you take me, David W., in your portrayal of the Preacher, presiding at the funeral of the beautiful boy with the deep soul. You look out over the congregation, your face troubled. How can your perplexity be genuine? Yet you almost convince me it is.

 “We ask ourselves the question ‘why?’ over and over again,” you say.

No closed coffin in front of the pulpit, just his framed photo in the center of a funereal wreath. And now what happens? Did you bump against it, knock your pulpit against the easel? For whatever reason, his picture falls face forward onto the floor. By your reaction I can tell this isn’t in the script. A moment’s hesitation and you go on with your sermonizing as if you haven’t witnessed his fall, as if nothing has gone awry. “A troubled young life is gone, and we ask ourselves why….”

Damn you, Preacher. Damn the unfeeling religious system you serve. Damn the ways you represent my own unseeing, unthinking, unfeeling responses to others. Another beautiful life ended, yet another deep soul sacrificed on the altar of power, tradition, institutionalized bigotry and willful ignorance. The accidental tumble his photo takes only echoes and underscores the insidious evil done daily in the name of fundamentalist religious belief. Another one bites the dust and so what. Who cares. Who even deigns notice.


MUNCIE, IN—Southern Baptist Sissies, written by Del Shores and directed by Robby Tompkins, continues its run at Muncie Civic Theatre’s studio space through March 2. The show left me winded. I’m trying to understand its impact on me by writing about it. Too, I grasp at some way to say thank you for the ways theater can illuminate, quicken and confound. I mean these words to convey some sense of my gratitude.

SPOILER ALERT: These ruminations assume you’ve seen the show, and make little effort to conceal plot denouement.

The Naked Truth: Nudity in Southern Baptist Sissies

In one of his poems (“To Cavafy,” in Turtle, Swan, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), Mark Doty descries five boys on a small raft anchored in a pond. Each maintains a careful distance from the others. They stand looking at the water, the far banks, the setting sun, engaging in laconic conversations. Watching from shore, Doty and his companion fix their attention on one of the taller high-school boys. He stands wet and gleaming, splendid in the slanting light, unaware of his audience. Doty writes,

Of course we wanted him,
but more than that—we have
each other’s bodies, better
because they are familiar.
We wanted to enter the way
he dove unselfconsciously

from the little dock,
certain, the diver
become pure form, the exact shape
for parting water.

This my husband and me, our shore the second row of seats in Studio Theatre, our focus the four young men who open the play with an enthusiastic rendition of an old gospel hymn. We take in the details. Handsome actors. Thin, fit. Ethan L.’s expressive eyes, hair dark brown and curly. Matthew B., black hair, heavy brows, slight build, erect posture. Chandler C., bright button eyes, pencil waist. Jake R., long in both body and face, the latter a playground of emotions. Each a study in black and white: black trousers, long-sleeved white dress shirt, thin solid-colored tie. Of course we wanted them.

Engaging to see them dive into their roles, later surface in various states of undress in service of their art. Enthralling to be caught up in the characters they portray, witness the marriage of teller and story. Chandler’s T.J. rolls words around in his mouth like a cough drop before spitting them out. He swallows often. Ends sentences with his lips tightly sealed. How much T.J. holds inside, must keep pressed and repressed. We watch as he is baptized along with his friend Mark (Ethan L.). Afterwards, the two boys towel off and change back into their Sunday clothes. T.J. strips naked, bare butt to the audience. Afforded a full-frontal view of his friend, Mark goes tongue-tied; his hormones hit Mach 1. Thus we witness an early link in the chain of events that charts the course of their lives, changes the nature of the two friends’ relationship. Credit the director and actors for giving this scene its due.

And other scenes likewise. A look at two of the boys engaged in celebratory mutual masturbation is juxtaposed with the Preacher’s spouting dire warnings to a third. The clergyman rails on about the dangers of temptation, of riding the devil’s merry-go-round of sin, about what happens when one gets off. Upstage, Mark and T.J. are doing just that. The scene—incorporating nudity—addresses on many levels the native strength of sexual desire and the power of religious and societal forces marshaled to constrain it. The Preacher prays with Andrew, “Please release us….” Indeed.

Not every player is able or willing to meet the playwright’s demands for physical exposure. No judgment from this quarter; we are all human and every actor an amalgam of real-live person and embodied character. As Andrew, Jake R. readily makes himself emotionally vulnerable to his audience. His face becomes a screen; an array of feelings play across it: excitement, joy, naivete, eagerness to please, sincerity of purpose, longing, physical attraction and desire, ache, shame, fear, grief, despair. Yet the actor refuses to follow his character’s lead in a pivotal scene that calls for physical intimacy. Alone in his room, Andrew strips to his boxers and masturbates to images in an issue of Playgirl. Except he doesn’t. Not in this production. This Andrew holds the magazine and touches himself circumspectly above the waist. I am not surprised to later learn he is the youngest member of the cast. Everything in its time. Kudos for venturing as far as he does.

After all, the play calls us to live within our limits. To go home, look into the mirror, and learn to love what we see there. To venture on a quest of self-discovery, to speak truth first to our inmost selves, then to those in power. Are we to speak the naked truth? Yes, insofar as we are able.


MUNCIE, IN—Southern Baptist Sissies, written by Del Shores and directed by Robby Tompkins, continues its run at Muncie Civic Theatre’s studio space through March 2. The show left me winded. I’m trying to understand its impact on me by writing about it. Too, I grasp at some way to say thank you for the ways theater can illuminate, quicken and confound. I mean these words to convey some sense of my gratitude.

SPOILER ALERT: These ruminations assume you’ve seen the show, and make little effort to conceal plot denouement.

Wisdom from the Peanut Gallery: What to Look At from Southern Baptist Sissies

While serving as a comic foil to the angst and turmoil amongst the four leads, barflies Preston “Peanut” LeRoy and Odette Annette Barnett pepper their one-liners with telling observations about life. Cheryl Crowder’s Odette is a hoot, referring to one unfortunate incident after another, none of which she cares to discuss in any detail. She knows what she is—and what she is not. “Oh honey, I’m not a lesbian,” she tells her newfound friend and drinking partner Peanut, “I’m an alcoholic.” All through the play she’s eying men in the gay bar, struck by this and that one’s resemblance to a person she once knew. Only towards the end does she reveal the object of her search—her brother Buddy whom she kicked out of the house over his being gay. She breaks down over her betrayal of him.

As Peanut, the diminutive Bryan Hamilton has been playing the role of the aging queen for laughs. Now he grows quite serious, speaks truth to his friend: “Look around you, Odette. All these boys are Buddy. All these troubled young men. They’re all Buddy.”

Odette takes her leave. She’ll move onto another gay bar in her continued quest to to find her brother, make amends. She studies a young man standing in the shadows who resembles the Buddy she once knew and loved. It’s Andrew, feeling conflicted over his escapades at the bar tonight, caught between longing and loathing. His religion tells him one thing, his desires another. The divinity he worships hates him and his kind. Everything he wants is wrong, everything he touches doomed. Odette steps over and kisses him on the cheek. He startles, stares, silently touches his cheek long after she walks away. Can anyone truly love him as he is?

Peanut rouses him from his reverie. “What’s your name?”

“Oh, I’m not a hustler,” Andrew replies.

“That’s alright, I’m not looking to buy sex, not tonight,” Peanut says. He studies the youth, then offers a devastating self-critique. “Don’t become like me, Andrew.” Then he extends a pearl of great price: “When you go home tonight take a look in the mirror and learn to love what you see.”

Look in the mirror and learn to love what you see. Good advice for any troubled young gay man. For any of us. For you. For me. And what’s more, I don’t have to wait until I go home to look in a mirror. The play shows me my own reflection. It’s not always pretty.


MUNCIE, IN—Southern Baptist Sissies, written by Del Shores and directed by Robby Tompkins, continues its run at Muncie Civic Theatre’s studio space through March 2. The show left me winded. I’m trying to understand its impact on me by writing about it. Too, I grasp at some way to say thank you for the ways theater can illuminate, quicken and confound. I mean these words to convey some sense of my gratitude.

SPOILER ALERT: These ruminations assume you’ve seen the show, and make little effort to conceal plot denouement.  

Smoke and Mirrors: Seeing Myself in Southern Baptist Sissies

At the intermission I chat with the woman seated near me. “How’s the play for you?”

“Interesting,” she says. “I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never seen it before. How is it for you?”

“Personal. I see myself in nearly every one of these characters,” I tell her.

“Oh, really?” she says. (What else does one say to a stranger who threatens to self-disclose?)

I spared her the details, You, I’ll tell.

I see myself in Ethan Litt’s portrayal of Mark stuffing his rage and hate. What to do with the beast that eats the heart? How to release the pent-up anger without causing damage? Mark unnerves me in the opening scene—by his use of profanity in church, caustic commentary, willingness to give the religious authority the finger. Later he hurls a Bible across the room. I don’t like to see the way repressed anger shoots out sideways. At the same time, Mark embodies many of the traits he despises in the Preacher: bombastic style, rigid thinking, preening self-assurance. This portrait hits too close to home for my liking. This mirror’s reflection is less than flattering.

In the role of T.J., Chandler Chastain holds a magnifying glass to blemishes in my own character. With intense gaze, pointed looks and earnest tones he portrays a version of me I recognize with a shudder: the very sincere, sober, serious know-it-all; the self-righteous, Bible-toting, Bible-quoting boor. Vestiges of that person linger on within me yet.

I hardly need a mirror to see myself many times over in Andrew’s whole-hearted embrace of religion. He so badly wants to be good. He’s so ready to believe, so willing to accept the authority of the church in matters of the soul. Andrew is baptized at eight years old; I was five. Jake Rura plays up Andrew’s energy and enthusiasm, his open-hearted sincerity—we could be brothers. I hear my former self praying in his cries of anguish, see embodied my past life as he bends his lanky frame in self-recrimination, lets acid guilt roil in his gut.

It’s more of a stretch for me to see myself in Benny. In Mathhew Bettencourt’s portrayal, Benny is not the stereotypical drag queen, catty, acerbic, strong-willed, determined. He is neither flamboyant nor affected, but gentle and kind. He makes his own way in a world that wants little to do with him. Doing drag allows him to come into his own, express his inner self, live into his power and self-assurance. Like me, Benny performs better when given a role to play. Something paradoxical about it, I know—playing a role sometimes allows one to become more truly oneself. I’ve been there, have experienced the magic. Been labeled atypical, too. Duck stereotypes when I can.

A brief glance in the mirrors held up by other characters:

Mothers (Molly Casey): Well-meaning and misguided. Check. Willing to hand over personal authority to the powers that be in the church. Check.

Preacher (David Whicker): Passing on what he was taught, blind to the impact of what he’s saying, so sure he’s right. Check, check and check.

Brother Chaffey (Cody Ricks): Latent. Hoo yeah.

Preston “Peanut” LeRoy (Bryan Hamilton): Tired aging queen. Sounds familiar.

Odette Annette Barnett (Cheryl Crowder): Flawed. Funny. Good heart. Check.

Johnny Handcock (John “J.P.” Bechtel III): Exotic dancer, well-built, shapely. OK, so maybe I don’t see myself in every character….

Ensemble (Andrew Dalton): According to his cast bio, performing in his first show EVER. Therefore, brave, daring, venturesome. Check.

Ensemble (Kodie Egenolf): Doubles as assistant director. Therefore, hard-working and probably under-appreciated. Check.

Announcer (Sid Ullrich): Mouthy. Check.

21 February 2013

Writer Beware

I note a link to my blog appears on a dubious blog promoting a company making big promises about the big money to be made by writers, a company that gets poor reviews and low ratings by online evaluators. Please note I have nothing to do with any money-making scheme or scam. Look before you leap.


MUNCIE, IN—Whole lot of preaching going on over at Muncie Civic Theatre's studio theater, and hymn-singing, and coming of age. Robby Tompkins elicits stand-out performances from four leading actors in a dynamic production of Southern Baptist Sissies by Del Shores that overcomes the script’s inherent preachiness to deliver a funny, moving piece of theater.

A preacher opens the play with fiery exhortations. Another Sunday in the Bible Belt. But no. One of the boys in the youth choir interjects a caustic remark, then another, and another. Ah, so the boy is now a grown man and the preacher’s words are among the memories of childhood he is sharing with us—memories that have lost little of their power to cut and wound.

How much power is made clear as Mark introduces himself and three other boys who grew up gay in a fundamentalist religion and church that relies on scripture to condemn homosexuality and demonize those who engage in it.

The tormented Mark (Ethan Litt) reacts in barely-supressed anger and rage to the mixed messages he receives both from the church and from his best friend and youthful love interest T.J. (Chandler Chastain): "come closer; go to hell." Litt's Mark moves at a furious clip throughout the story. He questions, argues, longs, and at last lands in a place that mingles bitterness with hope. 

Chastain offers a convincing portrayal of confusion, earnest denial and closeted self-righteousness. After an early taste of forbidden love, T.J. runs back into the closet and slams the door after him. 

On the surface, Benny (Matthew Bettencourt) has the easiest time embracing himself as he is. He lets his winning smile and ramrod posture carry him through life. As an adult he transforms himself into the fabulously outfitted country music diva Iona Traylor, offering high-energy lip-synched portrayals of such artists as Dolly Parton and Wynona Judd. Saturday night he drew whoops and cheers from his audience when he finished one number by doing the splits. 

On the other end of the self-acceptance spectrum, Jake Rura's sweet conflicted Andrew plots a tragic trajectory, turning in vain to family, church, and community for affirmation and support. He was able to bring forth real tears as in anguish he assailed heaven, "What's wrong with me? Why can't you love me?" 

Adding comic relief and ironic commentary on the whole affair is the oddball couple of straight floozy Odette Annette Barnett (Cheryl Crowder) and diminutive aging queen "Peanut" LeRoy (Bryan Hamilton). As Hamilton lends a sympathetic ear, Crowder delivers her one-liners with aplomb, and strikes the perfect tone in her more serious moments. Costume Coordinator Susan Lankford knocked herself out in dressing these two barflies. 

Undressing is the provence of John (J.P.) Bechtel III who appears as a male stripper at the bar. Musical Director Cody Ricks dons a red-sequined vest to serve music and drinks as pianist/bartender, doubling as church musician Brother Chaffey in traditional suit and tie. 

David Whicker's preacher is an instantly recognizable figure, and he strikes a balance between hellfire-and-brimstone delivery and caring, well-intentioned appeals. Molly Casey has the occasionally difficult juggling act of playing each of three mothers (“all but T.J.'s, cause his mother was dead, and that would be just weird,” Mark tells us). Ensemble players include assistant director Kodie Egenolf and Andrew Dalton (in his first stage appearance EVER, according to his cast bio—kudos to Tompkins for giving him a line to speak aloud).

Sid Ullrich's lighting design helps maintain focus and makes the most of limited stage area. The intimate studio space lends itself to emotionally-charged drama, and Tompkins delivers plenty of this.

At odds with the performance is the large and complex stained glass window that dominates the stage. It seems better suited to a Greek Orthodox cathedral than a traditional Baptist church. The window serves as backdrop to much of the story. Had Tompkins chosen instead to place a large cross of stained glass at the center of the action, he could have added layers of symbolism. The ways in which fundamentalist religion crucifies its gay adherents is central to the play's message.

Shore’s script is bitingly funny, sure, and heart-wrenching, but also melodramatic and sometimes downright preachy. Credit Tompkins and his strong acting ensemble for letting the story flow, delivering plenty of laughs and heartfelt performances full of soul.

The show is not for everyone. It’s very frank and explicit, rated NC-17. Yet there is much here that will resonate with anyone who has wrestled with themes of identity, self-discovery, acceptance, inclusion and the role of religion and the outsider. The play delivers a message of hope and love even as it calls for acceptance and tolerance. 

Southern Baptist Sissies continues at Muncie Civic Theatre's studio theatre through March 2.

Artwork used by permission.

01 February 2013


 Even in rural Indiana, traffic can be crazy. On our trip into town yesterday, at two separate intersections my husband and I watched dumbfounded as an approaching driver ran the stop sign. One vehicle we could have broadsided had we wanted to. I wanted to. We had already sidled up to the bright red octagon, come to a complete halt. Our turn to go when a man in a gray sludgebuster coming from our right slowed and drove right on through, right in front of us. I wanted to ram him. Good thing Dave was at the wheel.

 Me, I was wielding the December issue of The Sun, a favorite literary magazine. I often read aloud when I’m riding. A few hundred yards back I'd finished a brief piece by Thomas Schritz recounting an experience he had while waiting at a red light in Los Angeles. He watched a man who appeared to have palsy attempt to cross a busy six-lane freeway. As the man stepped out into the crosswalk Schritz thought to himself, he’ll never make it in time. He was right. The light turned green when the man was only a third of the way across. A nearby police cruiser sounded its siren and pulled into the intersection, lights flashing. Schritz grew angry as he waited for the officer to give the man a ticket. “The Los Angeles police are not known for being overly friendly,” he writes. He was surprised when the officer simply blocked all traffic until the man made his way safely to the other side.

 My voice had caught in my throat. I’d choked up. Dave had glanced over. “What?”

 “Sometimes we all need help making it to the other side,” I’d said.

 “You’re right. You and me, both. And Joe, for instance.”

 Joe entered our life quite recently when he mustered up the courage to call the phone number his therapist had given him. “This is the contact information for a gay couple who may be able to offer you some support,” she’d told him. We’d been cued in that he might ring.

 A denizen of small-town Indiana, Joe is in the early throes of coming out to himself in mid-marriage, midlife, mid-air. He feels like he’s falling, not sure what to do, where to turn, how to find his way. Not sure he’ll survive.

 Over 15 years ago, Dave and I found ourselves in similar straits. More than 15 years later we are still grateful to the people who extended a helping hand, warm welcome, listening ear. We too came out in midlife. We too wrestled with how to tell our wives, children, parents, siblings and society the truth we were discovering about ourselves.

 There is no easy road, no one right way to exit the closet. And there are no guarantees. Not everyone makes it. Most everyone hits hard times somewhere along the way. Joe tells us he feels lonely, depressed, afraid. Feels sad, scared, foolish. Feels like a teenager. Feels like an old man. Feels hopeful one minute, then despondent for days.

 “It’s all a part of it,” I tell him. “It’s natural to feel a wide—and wild—mix of emotions. How could you not? Everything is changing for you right now. It’s an unusual time, a remarkable opportunity. How many people have their world upended and get to recreate their lives half-way through? These days hold great peril and also great potential.”

 We’ve met with Joe a few times. We’re going out for pizza together tonight. We look forward to staying in touch, offering him the kind of support we received as we took our first faltering steps into new life. Simple kindnesses, really. Stop, look, listen. Bear witness. Offer encouragement, pointers and warm regard.

 After all, the traffic is crazy out there. The lights change quickly. We all need help making it to the other side.

This essay appeared in the February issue of The Community Letter