Interview with Del Shores of “Southern Baptist Sissies” by Earle Dutton
“Southern Baptist Sissies,” is emotional, hilarious and at some points heart-wrenching. The amazing cast includes: Leslie Jordan; Willam Belli; Emerson Collins and many more. Wrestling with the dogma and stigma of gay youth growing up in the Southern Baptist church. Very few if any of the teachings from this church have changed from it’s Fire and Brimstone beginnings. This film and original play address so many issues, fears and challenges faced by decades of our youth. It is quite timeless in it’s message.
We had a great chance to speak with Del Shores the writer, director and co-producer. You may have already experienced his talents with “Sordid Lives.” Don’t miss any of his work. He is a true talent in our community. This film is screening Sunday, October 20th as part of the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Click here for more info.
How are you feeling right now traveling around with “Southern Baptist Sissies”?
I am so excited about how well Sissies is doing. I think we are in over 20 festivals already. We have won lots of awards and doing really well with Audience Awards too. People really relate to the subject matter. There is so much damage from religion for our Southern boys and girls who grew up gay. I am very pleased with the film. I think it came out great. We shot this in 10 days. We really prepped though. I mean it is the play. We shot the play as a film.
Your humor is very Southern. How is it going over with Northern audiences?
Because of the Southernisms, I think the Southern audiences will always get them. Some things are universal though, humor and the damage that people feel. There is so much damage from religion no matter where you grew up. Then there are people who walk up to me and say they don’t relate to this at all. It is not how they grew up. I just say good for you and I am genuinely happy for them. Then there are other people that see it and just say they can’t believe this is still going on.
You grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. Do you have any fond memories from that time in your life?
I miss the church. I miss the hymn singing, the covered dish fellowships, the family that I had there. But like in the monologue, “how do you embrace something that doesn’t embrace you?” With my intelligence, I did not want to stay. I don’t want to be a part of them spewing all this hatred in the name of the Lord. There are many fond memories.
Have you experienced someone committing suicide because of growing up in the church?
Yes, just a couple of years ago my friend Kendall Moore killed himself. He had even seen the play. He was raised in Mississippi and Southern Baptist. His family never accepted him that part of him. Two weeks before he died his mother told him that he had never been anything but a disappointment to us. I saw him just two weeks before he killed himself. We will never understand why he never called any of us, his friends. There were so many people who loved him but he just felt isolated, alone and defeated. We can’t understand that. It is just an isolated incidence like with Andrew in the film. The dogma we heard as children is so hurtful and probably even louder now. Right now I think all of these churches are on high alert and activated since equality is winning in so many places. I think this contributes in some way to the rash of teen suicides. I have worked with the Trevor Project for many years. They told me these statistics that were just horrifying. Almost 50% of their calls were from the South and almost 100% of those calls were from kids raised in fundamentalist homes. My hope is that these young people can see the film or the play and realize they aren’t alone. I have received so many letters from people saying that they thought they were the only ones and alone. Because of this I have felt an overwhelming need to return to this story and share it on a much larger level.
How does it feel to have this up on the big screen after writing it, directed, travelled with it and living with it for so many years?
We really took a risk with this one. I gathered my troops the people that trusted me. But still there was always this voice inside me saying, “Will it work, will it work.” It is very unconventional. I was just hoping it would come together and work. We filmed it live during four showings of the play. All the camera angles and the laughter are organic. So now, I am relieved when I hear the laughter and see the tears. I love having people celebrate the film with me. There is just a sense of joy and relief in sharing this film. I am very overwhelmed and humbled by how many people share their love of the film with me.
What is it like to direct someone like Leslie Jordan? You have known him for years. He is such a big part of your family and he is just plain crazy most of the time.
I have known Leslie since about 1984. I feel so much trust from him and the whole group of people we work with a lot. I feel they hear the same melody I do when I write the lines. I don’t have to reach so far to direct these people. They get it, they get me. I don’t remember ever writing a line where I had to tell Leslie how to say it. He just hears what I hear. Every now and then he even hears beyond what I hear and even makes it better. It is a pleasure to direct him. We have rarely had any cross words while we are working together. Well now, off stage we have sometimes gotten into it. Because truly he is one of my best friends and he is my family. Creatively though, we are in totally sync with each other.
How did you meet Willam Belli and decide he should be Benny?
Interesting story, I met Willam at a workshop I taught in LA. I rarely teach here in LA. I saw him and thought, my god you are unique and wonderful. He was also, very funny and sort of over confident in a good way. This was way before he appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I hadn’t even seen him in drag at that time. So his acting won me over first. Then about a month I was asked to do stand up at the Gay and Lesbian Center and Willam was there playing Jessica Simpson. He was so funny and stupid as Jessica Simpson, it was amazing. He has such a commitment to these characters. After that I watch his celebrity rise on Drag Race, with his videos on Youtube and just in our community here in LA.
So then, one day when I was talking to Emerson Collins my producing partner. He was supposed to play Benny because he done it on the national tour. We started just talking and it sort of hit me. We had not picked someone to play Mark. I told Emerson he would actually be perfect to play Mark. We discussed it and he agreed to change characters. A couple of days later I was driving and had this epiphany about Willam. I called Emerson and told him that I had the greatest idea about who should play Benny. Well he also had an idea and wanted to tell me first. It was the same idea. He said Willam would be perfect. We both had the same idea and we knew we had to do it. I know he isn’t Southern but he is a mimic and is very talented. Plus he sings! All that rolled up into one person. Since he does his own singing we don’t have to pay for the masters! He came to do the reading and was just amazing.
Is there a message that you have for LGBTQ youth?
Yes, I want them to know that they are perfect. In the movie, Mark has a dream about Andrew. He says that when he talked about dream of a man holding him and comforting him, that man was God. I couldn’t hear him down here. With all the clutter down here I couldn’t hear that God was saying “You are okay Andrew just as you are. I will take care of you” I want these kids to get that message. I have said it before when you question the creation, you question the Creator. The one thing that is being spewed or being talk to these children and adults as well is that ‘what they are’ is a sin, not what they do. When they see Sissies I want them to know that God created that part of them and it is perfect as well. Hopefully I won’t be just preaching to the choir, I hope it crosses over and touches people and makes them rethink.
An amazing story about the film is that one of my neighbors here in LA attended having no idea about the premise. We also didn’t warn her and say you are Southern Baptist, this will probably not be your cup of tea. Well, the next day she knocked on my door in tears. She told me she was so sorry and that she had been teaching her children completely wrong. It was just so amazing. This was not a gay person who saw the play. This was a straight person in the church seeing this play and changing their opinion about all the hate they were taught and passing on to their children.
Well congratulations on making such an powerful play and film.”Southern Baptist Sissies” is screening Sunday, October 20th as part of the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Click here for more info.
We love Del Shores!