‘Southern Baptist Sissies’ reveals its lessons in Houston.
by Donalevan Maines
Never mind getting thrown out of bars; when Emmy Award-winner Leslie Jordan drank, he remembers bars not letting him in.
A case in point: the Round-Up Saloon in Dallas, where his new movie Southern Baptist Sissies is set. Jordan says the country-western bar on the strip in Oak Lawn once refused him entrance because he was carrying a bag.
“It was a man-purse,” explains Jordan. “I said, ‘This is a gay bar!’ It was back when they said you can’t come in with open-toed shoes, which is how they kept women out.”
The drunks at the gay piano bar in Southern Baptist Sissies include both men and women, primarily Peanut (Jordan) and Odette Annette Barnett (Dale Dickey, a Spirit Award-winner as Merab in Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout movie Winter’s Bone). They shoot the breeze in between scenes at a Southern Baptist church where a pastor’s ridiculous rants scar four impressionable gay boys.
The narrator and main character is Mark Lee Fuller, played by handsome Emerson Collins, who fondly remembers his first acting role as a shepherd boy in the annual Christmas pageant at First Baptist Church in Houston. “I marched behind 30 sheep traipsing through the church,” says Collins, who was born in Waco, where his parents went to graduate school at Baylor University.
At age two, Collins and his family moved to Spring, where he went to Klein Oak High School for his freshman and sophomore years, while worshipping at Champion Forest Baptist Church. Then he and his family moved to Singapore.
Collins returned to Texas to attend Baylor University, where he studied theater performance and vocal performance.
After graduating from Baylor, Collins spent a summer in New York City with the Atlantic Theater Company, then moved to Dallas. “I figured that in a smaller market, I would get to play a lot more roles. And the next three years, I was in 18 shows, from Shakespeare to children’s shows to musicals,” he says.
In what he calls “my summer of the Bible” in 2005, Collins played both Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Benny in Southern Baptist Sissies, which was performed at Uptown Players. “It’s a great repertory theater in Dallas that is devoted to gay plays, gay playwrights, and gay themes,” explains Collins.
Sissies author Del Shores saw the production at Uptown Players and was so impressed with Collins that he invited him to Los Angeles to play Benny in the 2006 L.A. stage revival of Sissies.
Shores is another Baylor boy, but his early years were informed as the child of parents attending Howard Payne University, “a Christian liberal-arts institution” in Brownwood, Texas.
“My father surrendered to the ministry when I was 5½ and we moved from Winters, Texas,” he says, explaining that his father studied religion and his mother, “a great seamstress,” was recruited by the drama department. “Suddenly, I had two new homes: the church and the theater,” says Shores. “The theater suddenly became my babysitter.”
After winning University Interscholastic League journalism contests in high school, Shores majored in journalism at Baylor.
As soon as he graduated, Shores heard Hollywood calling via a friend who had moved to a beach house in Malibu. “I left my mother crying in a Denny’s parking lot,” says Shores. “The night I graduated—literally—I got in my 1980 Mustang and drove off.”
Success came quickly in Tinseltown as audiences fell in love with the way Shores painted characters and situations that make you laugh and make you cry, and sometimes make you laugh and cry at the same time.
His career took off with Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?), which has been produced in 2,500 theaters throughout the world. Shores also wrote the screenplay for the 1990 movie version, which he executive-produced.
He followed Daddy’s Dyin’ with Sordid Lives and The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, as well as writing for the television series Dharma and Greg and Queer as Folk and writing, directing, and producing The Wilde Girls on Showtime.
Shores started writing Sissies after the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. “In the aftermath, I saw a news article with a photo of one of the killers’ living rooms, and on the wall was a picture of Jesus,” explains Shores. “It struck me that those boys might have learned to hate in church.”
Shores, who is now 56, “grew up in those pews, too.” He heard sermons that attacked homosexuality as a sin that would send him to hell; they weren’t balanced with the reality of positive images of gay men and women. “I didn’t have any of that as a kid,” says Shores. “I just had a big, big secret.” By writing Sissies, he explains, “I gave myself a big dose of therapy.”
Sissies won a GLAAD Media Award and sold out theaters across the land, but when funding fell through for a movie version, Shores put on his thinking cap to figure out how to share the story with audiences beyond live theater. “I realized, ‘I know how to do this,’” he says. “I was a big, big theater geek and a huge fan of the old Playhouse 90 productions that were filmed for live television, so I made the choice to film the theatrical production.”
Shores also decided that instead of playing Benny, Collins should play Mark. “Emerson speaks so intelligently, and he has this level of biting sarcasm—but it’s done in a smart way,” says Shores.
By then, Collins had also shone as producer of the national tour of Sissies and other projects in film and television. “We’re a two-man band,” says Collins. “He looks at the forest; I make sure none of the trees fall over.”
To play Benny in the filmed version of the play, Shores cast Willem Belli, a student in one of his acting workshops.
Meanwhile, Belli was stealing the spotlight as a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Eager to reprise his role as Peanut was Leslie Jordan, who swept into Houston last month for a laughfest at the Hobby Center with Varla Jean Merman.
“I’m so proud of Southern Baptist Sissies,” says Jordan. “That’s how I met the director of The Help, Tate Taylor.”
(Taylor originated the role of TJ, explains Shores.)
When Taylor was signed to direct the 2011 movie version of The Help, he cast Jordan as Mr. Blackly, Skeeter’s grumpy boss at the local newspaper. (He’s the bundle of nerves who says, “I guarantee you, one day they’re going to figure out cigarettes will kill you.”)
Jordan says, “My concern was that I couldn’t be all big and silly. This was the kind of thing where you keep your feet on the ground. So I asked the director, ‘You want me to butch it up?’ And he said, ‘Like you could.’”
About the national tour of Sissies, Jordan adds, “We had been in Atlanta and we were sold out, then we got to St. Louis and, like always, I ask, ‘What’s the count?’” (Meaning ‘How many are in the audience?’).
“They say, ‘Only a couple of hundred.’ What? It’s a 1,200-seat house! They tell me the World Series is down the street. I say, ‘What’s that?’”
Seven blocks away, in their debut season at the new Busch Stadium, the St. Louis Cardinals were playing in the final game of the 2006 World Series. Jordan says, “I had just gotten to a really touching monologue, and that city erupted, like Mardi Gras. Their team just won the World Series. All night it went on. Three, four, five, six—I didn’t get a bit of sleep—they went straight through ’til noon, when the parade started.”
In April, Jordan returned to Dallas, and to the Round-Up Saloon, where he held court at a fundraiser for out Oklahoma State Sen. Al McAffrey and his race for a seat in the U.S. Congress. “I said from the stage, ‘This time they let me in, but only through the back door!’”