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.

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