The Sordid Lives of Southern Baptist Sissies
Even though San Diego is in the midst of the dog days of summer, there’s a new season forecasted for August 24th, 25th, and 26th , and our entertainment Doppler 7000 has pinpointed the exact location, The North Park Theatre. No, it won’t be an early fall, it’s “A Season Of Shores,” as in Del Shores, the brains behind a series of Texas based comedies, two of which are heading our way, as the first stop in a National Tour.
But there’s no need to batten down the hatches, just get ready to get your ab workout done in a theatre setting, as “Southern Baptist Sissies” and “Sordid Lives,” will have you busting a gut while giving you food for thought – carb free, of course.
Headlining the two plays will be Delta Burke and a Shores perennial favorite, Leslie Jordan. The two spoke with me about their past, present and future selves, and of course, all things “Sordid” and “Sissy.”
Delta Burke is best known for her role as the Southern spitfire with a sharp tongue, Suzanne Sugarbaker of “Designing Women,” who became a gay icon to legions of fans.
“Suzanne was really flamboyant, plus she was just in her own little world, and didn’t really care what anybody else thought. And, we had big hair, and I did own a pig. You know, what more could you want.” Burke said, reflecting on the gay appeal of “Designing Women.”
Leslie Jordan is basking in the glow of his recent Emmy nomination as Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy Series for “Will & Grace.” On the series finale, his Beverly Leslie character went flying off of a balcony, which makes the potential for attending the reunion show a slim possibility. Not necessarily so, according to Jordan.
“In my mind, he landed on an awning, and he flipped onto a bus, and then he fell off into a bed of petunias and he disappeared or something. Jack got his money, but he’ll be back!”
And now, onto all things Del Shores.
“Southern Baptist Sissies” is a comedy/drama about four young men struggling with their sexuality against the backdrop of religion. Its roots of inspiration are buried deep into the bedrock of hatred that was the Matthew Shepard murder. It is the blending of pathos and comedy that Shores has become renowned for, and “Sissies” is no exception to this rule, as Jordan points out.
“I think that is kind of Del Shores’ ace in the hole is that he has this wonderful ability, where one moment you are just howling and holding your side, and the next minute he really lays it on and brings the message home. The balance, especially in “Sissies,” is perfect. There is a huge amount of laughter, but Del has an axe to grind. He grew up in the Baptist church, and he, unlike myself, had so much guilt about being gay. It was his cross to bear, and it’s a biting indictment of the Baptist Church, and kind of organized religion in general.”
Burke concurs with Jordan’s assessment of the blending of these two worlds by adding, “In the last mother that I play, she’s supposed to come out and be very emotional. But, then she goes into this comedy stuff, and it’s like one line is heavy drama and the next is comedy. I’ll do it, but the audience is sometimes afraid to laugh then when the comedy comes. So, I have found lately, that I don’t push the drama part so much, because they (the audience) need to be laughing then. And, there’s mainly more comedy in it than drama.”
And, how an audience reacts to the material is either make or break and can fuel a performance, or threaten a flame out, according to Burke.
“It’s huge, and they’re so damn different, every single one of them. It’s amazing to me how a body of people and you’re saying and doing the same thing, can have such different reactions. There should be a scientific study made, because we cannot figure it out.” Burke continued, sounding a bit reminiscent of a certain Southern belle. “When they’re really with you, and they’re laughing and having a good time, it’s just the highest high. Then there are other times and you are knocking yourself out, and there’s not a peep, and then the mistake you make is trying too hard.”
Jordan reprises his award winning role of Preston “Peanut” Leroy, whose nightly ritual includes hanging out in a piano bar and picking up hustlers. This character was well under his skin, even before he set foot on stage to portray “Peanut.”
“‘Peanut’ was based upon me. I really was a drunk who sat at The Spotlight Lounge in downtown Hollywood, with a cocktail in one hand and a checkbook in the other.” Jordan explained. “The Spotlight Lounge is this hustler bar where, it’s like the bargain basement hustlers. They are thirty days out of Soledad prison, have chipped teeth and tattoos and a rock cocaine habit. So they are just willing to do anything for about forty dollars.” Jordan said with his innocent Southern drawl that underscores the subject at hand.
“So I would tell Del Shores all these stories, and he put them in a play! I really did sort of relive those dark days of sitting on that barstool, it’s like a purge. I love playing that character…I went to Del Shores and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to just be a buffoon on a barstool. I think in the course of this play, these young men are going to realize that I’m everything they don’t want to be.’ There’s nothing sadder than an old, drunk homosexual sitting alone on a barstool.”
For her part in “Sissies,” Burke is once, twice, playing three times a lady by tackling the roles of three mothers, which offered an acting challenge and solution for this Broadway baby.
“It helps a lot with the wigs; I wear three different wigs, and the costuming. I’m pretty dumpy looking. The first one (mother), she’s kind of loud with her leopard and that kind of thing.” Burke said. “Then the other thing is to try to give them each a different voice, which that’s what I find the trickiest; ’cause you’ll tend to want to stay with one voice. I can make the one really loud, ’cause I’m used to playing loud people.”
“Sordid Lives” was first a play that became a movie, and Jordan promises the play is “more raucous than the movie;” a movie that became a bona fide cult phenomenon, which was no surprise to Jordan.
“We heard this rumor that it was playing in this theatre in Palm Springs, called The Camelot, and had kind of gotten this little cult audience. We all jumped on a tour bus with Olivia (Newton-John) and everyone and went down there to Palm Springs, and they were rabid! It was the first real taste of fame I got. I stepped off that bus, and those queens went crazy! I remember I went into the bathroom to pee, and somebody followed me in there, and he said, ‘I have an original movie poster. Could you please sign it?’ I was standing at the urinal, and I said, ‘I have something in my hand right now!’ ”
For those you who have been living under a rock, “Sordid Lives” follows the, well, sordid lives of a not so close knit family, who are prepping for the funeral of their family matriarch, Peggy, after she trips over her illicit lover’s wooden legs and is done in. “Lives” follows a very eclectic cast of characters, most of which are being revived by the actor’s that portrayed them on screen.
Alas, with Burke tapped to play three roles in “Sissies,” there is little room to spare for her version of Noleta Nethercott in “Sordid Lives.” Burke, who was voted Most Likely To Succeed in high school, had this to say about the character she committed to celluloid, and how she would fare on the high school popularity ladder.
“I don’t know that she would get voted anything, the poor thing would just be so far down on the list that nothing would happen. I think poor Noleta would be talked about quite a bit, but she would be given anything.”
In the play, Jordan revisits his obsessed to the point of dressing like Tammy Wynette scene stealing, Brother Boy, which has its mostly pros and only one con.
“I’ll tell you what I enjoy least, it’s the shaving; I have to shave myself, which is just awful. I’ve tried everything! I tried hiring a hot, young man to come in and do it, and they never look like the picture you see in the paper. I want to say, ‘Darlin,’ who do you think you’re kiddin’? This is not even you!” Jordan explained in his delightful way.
“I think my favorite part, after having done Brother Boy for so long, is it’s a very easy play for me to do. I like the fact that I am playing a character that Del Shores has written that is wildly funny.”
Burke was also drawn into Shores’ world by his wordsmithery, as she excitedly recanted.
“I saw that script and I thought it was brilliant! And I hadn’t seen that kind of writing since ‘Designing Women.’ And I thought, ‘Oh God! I’ve got to have a part in this!’ And most of it had been cast, and then I had this meeting with Del, and we just hit it off right away. And I liked him so much, and I was kind of begging to play anything.” She laughs before continuing. “Then I got to do it, and Del and I got to know each other. So, when he called me about doing the play, I thought, ‘Well I would do anything for Del.’ It just wound up being the most wonderful experience, they are the nicest people to work with. And, it just really doesn’t seem like work, it’s a really special kind of experience.”
Both parties confirmed they will be involved in not only the theatrical version of “Southern Baptist Sissies,” but the green lit Logo series of “Sordid Lives” as well. This tour is raising money for the film version of “Sissies,” and also of note, one dollar from each ticket sold will benefit the San Diego LGBT Community Center, in its efforts to stop hate crimes.
This article was first published in August 2006