Former newspaperman Fernando Dovalina has two plays on the boards this month, an Iraq war drama and a musical about televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker Messner.
Considered a friend by some in the gay community for her efforts to open the doors of Christianity to gay people, but regarded as less than a friend by others because at the same time she condemned the “sin” of homosexuality, Tammy Faye Bakker Messner remains an oxymoron. But as she faces her mortality as she deals with a recurrence of cancer, a new musical penned by Houstonian Fernando Dovalina and former Houstonian JT Buck poses the question, What legacy will the televangelist leave?
The Gospel According to Tammy Faye, receiving its Houston premiere this month at the Alley Theatre, presented by Bering & Friends, seeks to provide an answer.
“This is about her life, and we made some parts more dramatic, but at the same time, it stays true to who she is,” Dovalina says about the two-act musical that he co-wrote with JT Buck. (See also the OutSmart interview with Tammy Faye, “God ‘n’ Gays ‘n’ Tammy Faye,” September 2003. For an excerpt see below.
The Tammy Faye musical is one of two works by Dovalina, a former Houston Chronicle editor, on local stages this month. Unhinged Productions is presenting the world premiere of Dovalina’s American Homefront, through July 14 at Silver House Theatre. In Homefront, which opened on June 29, the parents of an army lieutenant in Iraq who is kidnapped by a rogue Islamic force come to question their values, their religious faith, and the meaning of patriotism. Unhinged, the GLBT-positive theater company, selected Dovalina as its playwright-in-residence in 2002.
Dovalina joined forces with Buck to create The Gospel According to Tammy Faye when the two men were students in a musical collaboration course at the University of Houston taught by the renowned Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow. Another classmate, John Garrett, directed early workshop versions of the show and the world premiere last June as part of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. After the annual cultural festival, the Cincinnati Enquirer praised Tammy Faye as “a hot ticket.”
The July 20–22 Houston performances of Tammy Faye are presented by Bering & Friends, a group that produces musical shows each summer benefiting the Bering Support Network, which provides counseling and support for persons affected by HIV/AIDS and others in the GLBT community. Since 1990, Bering & Friends has raised more than $143,000 for the network, a ministry of Bering Memorial United Methodist Church.
“This is about her life, and we made some parts more dramatic, but at the same time, it stays true to who she is,” Dovalina says about the two-act musical.
“This play will appeal to people of all religions. Even people who are cynical about religion will like it, because there’s a lot that’s funny and a lot that people will also identify with.”
Messner, known as Tammy Faye Bakker when she was a public face and one of the leaders of the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, spent the latter part of the ’80s embroiled in a series of financial and moral scandals along with her husband and televangelist partner, Jim Bakker.
What unfolded was the fodder of news and tabloid reports: Jim Bakker had an affair with one of his employees, Jessica Hahn; the couple had spent millions of dollars from donations by the faithful on a lavish lifestyle; Tammy Faye, who was known for her sometimes odd behavior, was addicted to prescription pills; the couple was ousted from the program through the alleged machinations of a trusted colleague, Jerry Falwell; Jim went to prison on tax charges; and the couple divorced, leaving Tammy Faye penniless and destitute; and she later married Ronald “Roe” Messner, an old friend of the couple.
Jim Carter, a member of Bering & Friends, which is producing the musical, says the story is a compelling one. For its annual fundraiser, the group usually presents a medley of Broadway numbers. This is the first year Bering & Friends has decided to tackle a play.
Carter said Dovalina approached Bering & Friends members this year and asked them if they would be interested in producing the show.
“It’s amazing, because when I read through the script, I noticed how appropriate the play is for our [HIV/AIDS support] program,” Carter says.
The play shows Tammy Faye’s efforts to reach out to the HIV/AIDS and gay communities through the PTL Club television program. She famously brought a gay man with AIDS on the program when the disease reached the public consciousness. At the time, she received a great deal of criticism, particularly from people within the conservative church.
“People will think this is a spoof of her, but it isn’t,” says Carter, who will have a role in the musical. “It’s a tribute to her life.”
Buck says that although Messner is flawed like many people, the public has been very tough on her.
“Even though I disagree with a lot of what Tammy Faye has said, the show
really helps make a statement,” Buck says. “We very often tend to write people off at first glance, but when you get to know somebody, there’s a certain amount of humanness that comes out of that.”
When Dovalina and Buck began writing the play, they used the acclaimed 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye (produced by two gay men, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato) as a basis for research. The collaborators soon decided they needed to speak with her. What emerged from an hours-long conversation with Messner and the materials she provided gave the pair a different point of view.
“One of the things we learned without her saying it, is that she wasn’t sure what she had accomplished,” Dovalina says.
He points to her efforts to help others as the most widespread of her accomplishments, and says that her attempts to continually grow showed in their meeting, and will appear in the play.
“She had rediscovered her childlike innocence, and so we went back to that,” Dovalina says. “She found Jesus when she was 10 years old, and we show how maybe on the way she had lost track of that, but had rediscovered that.”
“She had no idea what we were doing,” he adds, “but I had the feeling that she was facing her mortality, and she wanted to make sure there was some part of her story being told.”
Messner’s flaws and her redemption combine in the course of the musical to create an interesting personality that Dovalina and Buck think give her a common humanity. It’s that humanity that the play focuses on and which remains at the heart of the story. At the same time, the musical remains true to the innate lightheartedness that the heavy-makeup wearing, emotionally fluid Messner knowingly or unknowingly cultivated through her life.
“If nothing else, this musical is a fun riff on the idea that what’s redeeming for a person is getting to know them, and seeing them as a whole person,” Buck says.
He says that the play’s timing and opening scene of Messner undergoing cancer therapy were not meant to capitalize on the present state of her health. Buck added that her resilience and “amazing energy” could help her fight
“I think, being the Tammy Faye we know, she could surprise us all and completely rebound from this,” Buck says.
One aspect the play highlights is her conflicted relationship with the gay community, which was one of the few groups that didn’t abandon her when her fortunes and spirits were low.
“The people [the Bakkers] met along the way that they helped to succeed turned their backs on her when she was down,” Dovalina says, “and the people who remembered her were gay men. Here were people who she had not always specifically ministered to, who were there for her when she needed it.”
Dovalina sees Messner as a “renegade” within the evangelical community for using her power to help gay people by reaching out to them, which in turn led to the community’s support for her when she was down. It also helped focus people such as her son, Jay Bakker, who is now a minister, on helping them, he says.
“[She] took a step that she didn’t have to take,” Dovalina says. “If she hadn’t, maybe her son wouldn’t have, and a lot of other people she has affected wouldn’t have done that.”
And speaking up against injustice when it is necessary and not when it is convenient is a message Dovalina says is important that everyone needs to hear, and is one that he says Tammy Faye brings to the world.
“It’s a lot easier to be courageous when you don’t have anything else to lose,” he says. “She had the guts to do what was in her heart.”
“I think sometimes we as individuals have the option of going along with things as they are or we can challenge it,” he adds. “Sometimes we can change it, and sometimes we lose, but I don’t think we’re being ourselves when we don’t do it when we can do it.”
Josef Molnar profiled some of the individuals on our People To Watch list earlier this year (“Gaywatch,”> February 2007).
• American Homefront , presented by Unhinged Productions. July 1 and 8, 3 p.m., and July 6–7, 11–14, 8 p.m, at Silver House Theatre. $20. Tickets: www.u-p.org.
• The Gospel According to Tammy Faye, presented by Bering & Friends. July 20 and 21, 8 p.m., and July 22, 4 p.m., at the Alley Theatre. $25. Tickets: www.beringandfriends.org, 713/526-1017, ext. 200.
TAMMY FAYE TALKS GAY
In 2003, OutSmart creative director Blase DiStefano interviewed Tammy Faye Messner (“God ‘n’ Gays ‘n’ Tammy Faye,” September 2003). An excerpt:
Blase DiStefano: It’s not clear to me that you’re saying that, if I’m gay, then I will go to heaven because
[I say these words: “Forgive me of my sins, and Lord help me to live a life that is pleasing unto you”].
Tammy Faye Messner: That’s between you and God, and you’ve got to believe it when you say it.
But I don’t believe by being gay I’ve sinned.
What I’m saying is that it has to be between you and God. Not between you and a preacher, not between you and a priest, not between you and anyone else. It has to be between you and God…. Only you and God can figure out what’s right for you.
OK. I can deal with that. Is there anybody in your family who is gay that you know of?
No. Not that I know of.
…The more we label ourselves as gay, the more people will realize how many gay people there are.
Oh, what I’ve said so many times is that what I’m trying to do is put my arms around the gay community and the straight community and hug them together. I’m trying to let the church know that there’s a large gay population out there that we are not loving and caring about. And I think that’s sad. I go to gay churches. I minister in gay churches.
Your book [I Will Survive…And You Will, Too!] actually says…
That we’re all OK.
Yeah, and that we’re gonna survive.
Yes, it’s about survival and that any of us can survive. I don’t care where you’re starting from, you can survive, you can make it. If I’ve gone through all the things I’ve gone through in my life, then anybody can do it. I thought I was a wimp, but I found out through this that I guess I’m not. I must have been a lot stronger than I thought….
…It was interesting that a gay man sent you $10,000.
Yes, he did. We didn’t have hospitalization, we had nothing. Here I was with Jamie, Jim was in prison, I was by myself. I had a little church that I’d started, that’s all I knew to do. And this man who had watched PTL, a gay man who had watched PTL, sent me that money. I kept it in the bank the whole time Jim was in prison. And Jamie had to have braces, and things did happen. And that money just literally saved my life. And I still love him today. He’s still a dear friend today.
So it was the gay community that found me. People said they couldn’t find me. Well, the gay community found me. And I will always love the gay community, because they cared about me. They cared about my hurting, and they cared about my suffering, and I think the reason they did is because they’ve suffered and they’ve hurt and they’ve gone through feelings of rejection and feelings of just downright hate from people. And that’s what I felt after we lost PTL. I feel like I went through almost everything the gay community has gone through. And I believe that’s why we have such a love for each other, even though they know that I’m not gay.