Ludicrous Theatre’s powerful ‘Southern Baptist Sissies’ takes religion to task

My best friend is Catholic. I remember having a particularly pointed conversation with her asking if she believed I was going to hell because I was gay. While her response was “no,” she couldn’t argue with the fact that her religious community felt differently. Hearing her try to reconcile these two things just confused me even more.

I’ve always had an issue with a system that judged me for who I am. I’m gay. It’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s not a sin. It’s who I am. It’s who I love. It’s none of your business, unless I want it to be.

When news like this comes along, it makes me think we might be stepping into a new era of acceptance — or, at least, reluctant understanding — in the religious community. And that’s grand. Because news like this makes me want to move to Mars.

Ludicrous Theatre-Chicago’s brave production of Del Shores’s Southern Baptist Sissies puts a magnifying glass over the way a deeply steeped religious community can slowly suffocate those “sissies” who don’t demonstrate the proper ways of the Lord.

And in this play we are presented with four young men, all members of the Southern Baptist Church, who grapple with this struggle. Benny (Bryan Schmiderer) has always been confident with his orientation, and is now a proud, yet guilt-stricken, drag queen. Andrew (J. Keegan Siebken) is the quiet one who has a dirty secret hiding in his bedside drawer. TJ (Charlie Wein) shoves his desires deep down to be right with God. And Mark (Kirk Jackson) is in love with TJ. Suzanne Bracken adeptly plays the universal Southern mother to these young boys, balancing a mix of misguided love with dread for their sissy ways.

Shores’s deeply admirable play, which premiered in LA in 2000 and is deftly directed by Wayne Shaw in this bare-bones production, takes, at times, a rather heavy handed approach. I loathe to say it, but we know where these stories are going way before they get there. But perhaps this is intentional: the threat of lakes of fire and the gnashing of teeth should one not straighten up and fly right with the Lord has led far too many young gay men (and women) into a well-worn path of self-destructive behavior. It’s time to stop this cycle.

While these stories are indeed gut-wrenching (particularly in the second act monologues delivered by this talented ensemble), it’s a side story between two barflies, a middle-aged gay male called “Peanut” (the fantastic Michael Pacas) and a boozy, straight woman named Odette (Catherine Thomson), that captured my attention. In a way, Peanut represents the heart and soul of this show. He’s the product of a society that has rejected him — not just his family and religious community for being gay, but also by the gay community for not being young or attractive enough.

If you’ve ever been in a gay bar, you’ve seen this guy — he’s the one sitting at the bar, behind a seemingly bottomless glass, always at the ready with some piece of scintillating gossip to share about everyone walking in the door. And in the final moments, a shift changes between Odette and Peanut’s relationship that strips away the veneer of boozy banter and cheap laughs to reveal a sobering reality.

Southern Baptist Sissies reminds us to question the established rules. To find your inner truth. It may be the tougher path to take because it’s the one less travelled, but it’s the path you need to take. You must take. For your salvation.

“Southern Baptist Sissies” plays through July 1 at Greenhouse Theatre Center. More info here >

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