Normally filmed versions of stage productions are pretty tedious affairs. It’s very difficult to transfer the feel of a live production from stage to screen. That’s partly because they’re very different mediums and partly because if you’re having to shoot around an audience, it severely limits how it can actually be shot. That’s not to mention that stage acting often has to be bigger than screen acting and can come across as a little silly when removed from the theatre.
For about the first five minutes I thought this was going to essentially ruin Southern Baptist Sissies. As Emerson Collins’ Mark addressed the audience, it didn’t really feel like something that would work on screen. However then it all started to come together to create a surprisingly successful hybrid of stage and screen.
One thing that helps is the way it was filmed. Rather than just shooting a single performance, Southern Baptist Sissies is a mix of the play in front of four different audiences, as well as some segments that were specially filmed without an audience there. It allows for a more filmic feel, ensuring each scene can be shot in a way that actually helps tell that part of the story, rather than hoping a few distant cameras can capture the entire thing and get across everything you would have had in the theatre.
The other thing that helps is the play itself, which retains its sense of anger, optimism, confusion, sadness and righteous indignation whether it’s on screen or in a theatre.
Southern Baptist Sissies follows four young men who’ve all grown up in the Southern Baptist faith. They’re all LGBT but they’ve constantly been told that gay urges are wrong, that it’s a personal failing, is against God and that if you really want it, you can pray the gay away. This has affected them all in various ways and through the lengthy running time each recounts their story, often showing us different sides of events that involved more than one of them.
Mark is the main narrator, and a pretty angry one. He is furious about how his religion treated him and his same-sex feelings. After spending a long time trying to stop himself being gay, he’s now come to realise it’s something he can’t do anything about. That’s in contrast to the boy he fell in love with, TJ (Luke Stratte-McClure), who’s now married and determined that he’s completely straight, despite the experiences of his youth.
Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery) meanwhile is starting to make his first uncertain steps into the gay world, visiting gay bars and taking part in the possibilities they offer. However he’s still severely conflicted and filled with self-loathing. Then there’s Benny (Willam Belli), who’s embraced who he is with comparatively few qualms, becoming a performing drag queen.
The narrative jumps forwards and backwards in time, allowing the guys to show us how their sexuality and faith are intertwined. There’s a sense of fury throughout Southern Baptist Sissies about how the attitude of the church affects young LGBT people. It’s not just that it doesn’t like gay people, but that it puts people who are gay in a position where they feel that there’s no way out – there’s no support and you are evil just for feeling things that you have absolutely no control over.
As with many things that people get exceedingly angry about, it’s because there’s a thin line between love and hate. Mixed in with the fury is a wistful love of the Southern Baptist faith and the safety, communion and spiritual succour it offers outside its rejection of gay people. All four boys are trapped between their desire to love Jesus and the good of the religion they grew up in, and the hypocrisy of a faith that preaches love but shows hatred to gay people. It’s a mix that ensures there’s a sadness running through the whole thing, not least that the effects of an anti-gay upbringing don’t simply go away if you leave that environment behind.
While very effective, all the angst, anger and sadness at the loss of what the guys once had might have felt a little overwrought and excessive on its own, but it’s smartly tempered with scenes featuring an older gay guy and a straight woman drinking in a bar. And you couldn’t wish for a better couple of lushes than Leslie Jordan and Dale Dickey, two actors who’ve made careers out of coming into films and TV series and stealing scenes with absolute expertise.
That’s particularly true of Jordan, who’s a familiar figure from the likes of Will & Grace, Boston Legal, The Help and Love Ranch. However these were side roles where they needed a rather camp guy to come along and be witty, providing a bit of light relief. It’s great then to see him here in a role that allows him to do what he does so well, but also gives him space to show that he’s a very good actor beyond very funny campery. The same is true of Willam Belli, who’s become extremely well known as a drag star extraordinaire. While that’s on show here, we also get to see him give a fully-rounded performance that shows us sides we may not have expected from Belli.
Leslie Jordan’s character is at the other end of his journey to the young men. He’s aging and spends all his time propping up a gay bar, knowing all the men there but having few real interactions with them. Dickey meanwhile initially seems rather out of place but soon develops a friendship with Jordan and they begin to share their life experiences.
At first they seem to just be a bit of comic relief and it’s difficult to see how they relate to the rest of what’s going on. However the wit and humour that makes you really start to enjoy these drunken peoples’ company ensures it’s even more effective when the more emotional part of their story kicks in. Indeed a simple scene between Jordan and one of the boys, where Leslie laments what he’s turned into and gives the youngster a touch of hope, is just as moving as the more overtly emotionally charged events that take place shortly afterwards.
I have to say Southern Baptist Sissies surprised me. It’s rare for a filmed play to actually work on the screen. There are a few shortcomings as it’s simply not possible to completely overcome the differences of the way theatre and film work. However thanks to the smart way it’s filmed and the fact there’s a strength and power to the play itself, it’s surprisingly absorbing.
Overall Verdict: Filmed plays don’t have a great reputation, but Southern Baptist Sissies works out a smart way to do it, ensuring the anger, sorrow, joy and sadness of the play comes through on the screen. Trying to find a way through sexuality and faith is a tough issue for many, and it’s obvious this production comes from a very personal exploration of that.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac