25 February 2013
SMOKE AND MIRRORS: SEEING MYSELF IN SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES
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.