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.

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.

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