Screen Savor: That Old Time Religion

Sissies“A film of the theatrical experience,” Southern Baptist Sissies (Breaking Glass Pictures) might feel like a bit of a letdown after the Sordid Lives movie and subsequent TV series. But the strength of Del Shores’ writing and the performances of the talented cast go a long way in convincing the viewer to overlook the limitations of the stagey presentation.

Honoring the piece’s theatrical roots, Southern Baptist Sissies is presented in two acts. In the first, amidst the fire and brimstone pews of the Calvary Baptist Church in Dallas, we meet Mark (Emerson Collins), who functions as the narrator. Fellow sissies at the church include his best friend Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery), his crush TJ (Luke Stratte-McClure) and Benny (Willam Belli, of RuPaul’s Drag Race renown), described as “the biggest sissy of all.” According to Mark, it is in this church that they “learned to hate themselves.”

Across the stage, in a gay bar setting, Peanut aka Preston (the inimitable Leslie Jordan) and Annette Odette (Dale Dickey), who has had a series of unfortunate events, act as an unofficial Greek chorus, either commenting on the action or relating their own sordid tales. Peanut and Annette Odette’s scenes are a potent blend of laugh out loud comedy and tear-jerking tragedy, like those involving the sissies, which is something that speaks to Shores’ flair for dialogue.

southern-baptists-sissies-film-still--l-r-luke-stratte-mcclure-emerson-collinsjpg-069873af43133f7dSouthern Baptist Sissies provides the details of the young sissies’ formative years as well as glimpses of them as adults (at least those who survived). Benny, who was the most at ease with his sexuality, is now a drag performer known as Iona Traylor. TJ, however, the most devout of the bunch, became a fanatical preacher in adulthood. That doesn’t erase his intimate relationship with Mark, nor Mark’s feelings for him. But in the dramatic conclusion to the first act, it becomes clear that while Mark is ready to embrace who he is, TJ (who obviously has strong feelings for Mark) can’t discard his faith.

The second act also incorporates both comedic and dramatic situations. Gay realization comes to Andrew who admits to masturbating to pictures of N*Sync, but he struggles with being gay. When his mother discovers Andrew’s personal gay stash, things go rapidly downhill and the first tragedy occurs. Benny who embraced his identity early at bible camp, keeps in the loop with Mark through Mark’s column in a gay publication. Meanwhile, TJ, who desperately tried to wash away his attraction to men, and Mark do get to have a final confrontation. And, in spite of having had a crush on Jesus and  “allowing” the Baptists to fuck him up, Mark is a survivor, taking the God is love message to heart and waking up daily with hope. Strongly recommended, Southern Baptist Sissies will make you cry (Annette Odette’s confession is one example) and laugh so hard that you’ll cry (practically anything Peanut says). DVD special features include a pair of music videos, cast interviews and a behind the scenes featurette.

CCThe documentary Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption (Breaking Glass Pictures) follows a theater company’s production of the Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi, in which the Passion story is retold depicting Jesus Christ as a gay man in 1950s Texas. Described as “a life-changing journey” for the cast and director, the film focuses on the period between 2006 and 2011, when the play was produced in a number of US cities, as well as in Ireland, Scotland and Mexico. As you might expect, they were met with their share of resistance, usually represented by unemployed and unbathed religious zealots who have plenty of time on their hands to protest theatrical productions they haven’t actually seen.

Featuring interviews with McNally, McNally’s lawyer husband Tom Kirdahy, Norman Lear, Larry Kramer, as well as some religious leaders and others. A majority of the interviews are conducted with the cast and director Nic Arnzen (who co-directed the doc along with actor James Brandon, who also plays Joshua/Jesus in the play).  Therein lies the problem; actors talking about acting can be a risky and distracting proposition. The inclusion of the cast’s personal stories and their own experiences with religion are only moderately more interesting.

The end result, intentional or not, is that Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption will probably only fuel fans of the play’s desire to see a full-length dramatic film adaptation of McNally’s controversial creation. DVD special features include interviews, backstage footage, play performance scenes, news footage, photo gallery and more.

By Gregg Shapiro

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