By Donalevan Maines
“Bloom where you’re planted” could be a line from the new musical The Sweet Potato Queens, but it’s actually advice from the grandmother of out actor Dylan Godwin, who co-stars in the show’s world-premiere production this month at Theater Under the Stars (TUTS).
The seed for the musical was planted here last spring in two TUTS staged readings that gave the show’s creative team an opportunity to try out their material before a total of about 400 theatergoers in Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center.
Now, the bloomin’ thing is back for its first full production.
Melissa Manchester composed the music, with lyrics by Sharon Vaughn and book by Rupert Holmes, who found fame performing “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” before winning Tony awards for the 1985 Broadway musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He also helped create the 2007 hit Curtains for which out actor David Hyde Pierce won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical.
Godwin reprises his role from the readings as George, the “flamboyant gay best friend” who helped inspire Jill Conner Browne to find her voice as a “Sweet Potato Queen,” aka SPQ, and matriarch of “the only female drag queens in existence, complete with fake rear ends and majorette boots.”
Browne went on to pen multiple #1 New York Times bestselling books touting SPQ philosophies of empowerment. They created a global phenomenon, with more than 6,200 chapter groups in 37 countries. Members include “men, women, gay, straight, rich, poor, drunk, and sober,” says Browne. “So when I say there is no line—there is no line.”
TUTS says The Sweet Potato Queens is loosely based on Browne’s life-story and her infectious, uplifting philosophy “which was borne out of her need for some excitement and a new direction.”
Browne’s original SPQ group, consisting of women in green-sequined dresses, red wigs, cat-eyed glasses, boas, and tiaras, rode in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Jackson, Mississippi. Today, the SPQs have their own parade in Jackson, along with a weekend filled with events, which was moved this year to March 31–April 3 so as not to conflict with the musical at TUTS.
“Yes, we really do wear bathrobes,” says Browne at a Saturday morning pre-parade brunch of pig candy, shrimp, grits, “and much, much more.”
Another “must” is that the “official” name of every SPQ is Tammy, which Browne says is “used to preserve some shred of a semblance of anonymity.” (For further information about SPQs, as well as their planned “Million Queen Parade,” visit sweetpotatoqueens.com.)
The main tenet of SPQs, explains Godwin, is to “do what makes your heart sing. Celebrate yourself.”
After last year’s readings, the musical’s creators sent ideas back and forth to co-directors Bruce Lumpkin and Marley Wisnoski, then returned to Houston in December for a private table-reading of the work in progress. The new version rearranged some of his scenes, says Godwin, adding, “[Lumpkin’s and Wisnoksi’s] handprints are all over it.”
The show also adds two songs and introduces a new character who is a “Spud Stud.”
“Spud Studs,” in the parlance of SPQs, are men “in the entourage” of SPQs “who make themselves useful in various and sundry delightful ways.”
That’s from the glossary of SPQ terms in Browne’s third book, God Save the Sweet Potato Queens, which describes five men that every SPQ must have in her life at all times: “One you can talk to, one who can fix things, one you can dance with, one who can pay for things, and one to have great sex with. The good news is: all but one of them can be gay.”
Offstage, Godwin and Wisnoski have been BFFs since he wowed her at the 2014 tryouts for Reefer Madness that was part of the TUTS Underground series of edgy musicals. “He gave a phenomenal audition,” she explains. “It was so exciting to meet such a really talented individual, then to actually become really great friends outside of the business as well. Dylan approaches everything sincerely and honestly. In my opinion, he is one of the best actors in Houston.”
Wisnoski grew up in Louisiana, she says, “making my neighbors be in plays I wrote and directed.”
Midway through school at Baylor University, the actress in her decided what she really wanted to do is direct—a profession she then pursued with a master’s degree at the University of London Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
Her job at TUTS changed her direction from directing dramas to directing musicals. “That’s why she’s so incredibly good,” says Godwin. “Even with song and dance and spectacle, she knows what serves the story.”
The duo says they enjoyed meeting a number of SPQs at last year’s reading, including the Mississippi man who inspired Godwin’s character. “He is a singular spirit,” says the actor. (The Jackson man, whom the SPQs met when he was their waiter, also holds the distinction of being named the first “honorary Sweet Potato Queen.”)
Browne also attended, but it was Holmes and the Grammy Award-winning Manchester whom Godwin and Wisnoski were most excited to meet. “My dad had a rock band, so I grew up with all the major artists. I knew Melissa Manchester’s music,” says Wisnoski.
“I knew everything about her,” adds Godwin. “My mom, driving me to school, played her greatest hits.” Among them was “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” in which Manchester sings about Baby, who “cried the day the circus came to town ’cause she didn’t want parades just passing by her.”
As befits Baby’s feelings (and yes, that “different kind of love she thought she’d found”), The Sweet Potato Queens begins and ends with a parade.
In addition, Act II begins with a funeral, but in true SPQ fashion, it’s no Debbie Downer. Instead, it’s a show-stopping celebration of the foods that Southern women make for their neighbors when someone dies.
Godwin promises, “It will be hard for anyone to walk out of the theater not humming. Every song has a great hook.”
What: The Sweet Potato Queens
When: March 17–27
Where: The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.