Monday, February 15, 2016

Southern Discomfort

Religion and Sexuality Clash in Southern Baptist Sissies

The saga of four choir members growing up in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” and dealing with their sexuality forms the basis for Southern Baptist Sissies that is currently playing at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.  This powerful play by Del Shores that premiered in Los Angeles in 2000 received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding LA Theater Production among other honors.

TJ (l.) played by Dennis Binseel rejects Mark (Michael MaKay)
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography 
By no means is Southern Baptist Sissies an uplifting work. It realistically depicts homophobia in the conservative religious community and the effect of religion’s rejection of homosexuality on young people. The messages are hammered home through frequent fiery monologues and exchanges between the characters that under the direction of Fuzz Roark, the production is hallmarked by extraordinary performances by the cast.

The four boys—Mark (played by Michael MacKay), TJ (Dennis Binseel), Andrew (Dan Romeo) and Benny (Tommy Malek)—offer intense individual revelations on each one’s coping with his sexuality in the Dallas Baptist Church.  ##
Narrated by the idealist Mark, the story jumps back and forth in time using his memory of events and his own attempts at trying to figure out why the Baptist Church preaches love and forgiveness but lambastes homosexuality.  He is enraged by this situation and frustrated even more over his childhood friend, TJ, with whom he had a sexual relationship as teenagers.   That led to Mark’s falling in love with him, but TJ, influenced by the Scriptures, denied his gayness and tried the straight path towards redemption.   He eventually enters into a relationship with a woman.  #hocoarts

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, Benny fully embraces being gay, at least on the surface, brushes off the Church’s teachings, and becomes a flamboyant drag queen.
In between is Andrew, who is conflicted by his sexual urges and the demands of his faith in the hope of finding acceptance by God.

The Dallas Baptist Church’s anti-gay teachings are brought home by the fire and brimstone preacher, Reily (John Sadowsky) who does not temper his anti-gay rhetoric even after a tragedy at the play’s end.
Melanie Eifert as Odette and Greg Grenier as Peanut
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotograph
To provide comic relief, two barflies, an older gay man, Preston “Peanut” LeRoy (played deliciously by Greg Grenier), and a self-described alcoholic Odette (Melanie Eifert) engage each other at a piano bar at various intervals within the play.  They gossip about the other bar patrons, discuss their lives, make funny quips (Peanut: “I’m a social drinker.  You’re having a drink, social I”) and create a bond that is endearing.  Both actors are superb and convincing in their roles.
These segments in the play do not have a direct relationship to the core plot of Southern Baptist Sissies—that of the journey of the four boys—other than the fact that the characters are Baptists.  Yet, the comedic exchanges are a welcome respite from the intensity of the remainder of the play.

Another comic sequence is the exceptional drag performance by Benny’s “Iona Traylor.”  Singing live as opposed to the all-too-common lip synching device, Mr. Malek’s voice is spot-on and his well-delivered “bitchy” comments hit the mark.  
Though the play was written at the beginning of the millennium, Mr. Roark, updated it by invoking the names of several homophobic elected officials and presidential candidates into the dialogue—an amusing touch.

Other than these lighter moments plus brief stripping appearances by Mr. Binseel showcasing his well-toned physique, the play is serious with a poignant, thought-provoking theme.

From left: Michael MacKay, Dennis Binseel, Dan Romeo and Tommy Malek
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography 
The Peanut character, however, accurately portrays the plight of older gay men in bars back in 2000 and continuing today whereby they engage in gossipy banter, are often ignored and marginalized by younger gay men, and their loneliness could lead them to having to pay for sex.  Peanut’s advice to the younger Andrew, drawing on his experiences, provides one of the play’s sweetest moments.
This is a well-cast production with the all the actors performing very competently in their roles. Most notably, Michael MacKay, as Mark, the principal character, ably conveys the wide expanse of emotions required from this part.   Tommy Malek as Benny stands out as does John Sadowsky as the Preacher.  Dennis Binseel, already a Spotlighter’s veteran of six productions, brings much passion to his character for the tense scenes. Christina Holmes does a good job playing the boys' mothers.

Credit Accent and Dialect Coach Sherrionne Brown for helping the cast with their authentic deep Southern drawls, which are delivered consistently throughout.  Also, Al Ramer deserves a nod for his lighting design that creatively augments the scene changes.
And while this play is not a musical, there are frequent hymns sung by the four main characters whose voices blend beautifully in each number.  William Georg is excellent playing organ music in church scenes and piano music in the piano bar.

Southern Baptist Sissies is a serious play about serious issues despite the comedy in the mix.  It primarily sheds light on a subject that touches the lives of many gay people coming to grips with their sexuality while religious leaders and their followers disparage them whether they are in Dallas or anywhere else. 
Yes, there are times the dialogue gets a bit too overwrought and the play does not leave any of the characters truly happy.   However, the overarching message of the need to love one’s self no matter who you are is an important one.  

This well-directed, well-performed production at the Spotlighters should not be missed.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The play contains profanity and sexual situations and is not recommended for children.
Southern Baptist Sissies plays through March 6 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-752-1225 or visiting here.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Is Any Presidential Candidate Electable?

As we move to the next phase of the primaries season, it is interesting to note that “electability” was not the number one factor on the minds of both Democrats and Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.  Other issues had priorities above electability, which is understandable. 

However, the importance of electability cannot be overstated with so much at stake.  In assessing the current crop of candidates, it is a real challenge to see where any of them are electable given their weaknesses and the history of presidential campaigns.
On the Democratic side, the field is down to just two hopefuls, which will make decision-making on the part of Democratic voters more clear-cut.  However here are the challenges facing each one.

Bernie Sanders occupies the left flank of the party highlighted by his ideas to end corruption and influence by big corporations in elections.  He also favors some form of wealth distribution through increased taxes on the rich and taxing equity transactions.  Sanders also advocates free tuition for public colleges and health care for everybody using a single payer system. 
They are noble causes to be sure but impractical given today’s hostile and dysfunctional Congress.  Sanders is counting on a “political revolution” to pressure Congress to enact these proposals. 
Unfortunately for his supporters, these ideas will be mocked by opponents when they will hammer home the point that he wants to hand out free food, houses and automobiles as well.  You know how they operate.  #hocopolitics

Sanders’ arguments play well in states like New Hampshire but he will be slammed by a Republican opponent, should he win the nomination, as one who wants to raise taxes—a proposition that never works in presidential elections.  They will likely hurt him in important battleground states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado.  His supporters believe working people will rally around him.  We’ll see.
He and the media have portrayed Sanders as an outsider, but with over a quarter century in the Congress, that may be a hard pill to swallow.  At this point, his electability is an issue.

Hillary Clinton is by far the most qualified and best prepared candidate to occupy the Oval Office.  She is smart and savvy and is fully knowledgeable about domestic and foreign policy.  Her strategy of aligning herself with President Obama and his policies is wise for the primaries as the President is popular within the Democratic Party.  She would have to loosen that grip, however, in the general should she be the nominee as Obama’s approval rating is still below 50 percent.

With all that is going for her,  Clinton is burdened by scandals—real or imagined—that plays into the narrative of a potential Republican opponent.  To his credit, Sanders has eschewed the email flap, donations to the Clintons’ foundation, paid speeches made to Wall Street corporations, her body of work as Secretary of State and other areas of concern, but her Republican opponent would have a field day.  Plus there is the problem of “Clinton fatigue” and her inability thus far to connect with young people and women who are under age 65.  These groups are essential if there is any chance for the nomination and the general election going forward. 
The Republican candidates, now winnowed to a somewhat manageable list, had been derisively called by Democrats a “clown car” and for good reason.  Few had shown any potential to be the president and commander-in-chief because of their extreme right wing views on domestic and foreign policy and their inability to demonstrate that they have a grasp on the issues.  Some haven’t even presented their policies in a coherent way.  They are good at bashing Obama and Clinton and for the most part, they are scary.

Leading off is the giant who has sucked all the political oxygen out of the GOP race: Donald Trump.  Aside from his brash bravado, which is totally obnoxious, he has insulted women, Mexicans and other Hispanics, the disabled, Muslims, the list goes on.  He has not presented himself as presidential and gets his foreign policy information from TV shows. Trump shrugs off unemployment statistics gathered by a non-partisan entity as phony but believes the rate of unemployment could be as high as 42 percent. 
The trouble with Trump is that he says what many Republicans (including candidates) believe but they have enough of a filter to prevent such outlandish statements in public.  Right now, Trump is the one to beat, but it is extremely unlikely he is electable in the general.

Ted Cruz has the challenge of being born in Canada, which Trump will use to cast doubt on his electability.  Moreover, he has the unique position of being reviled by both Democrats and Republicans.  He comes off as sleazy as much as frightening given his ultra-right wing views.  His leading the shutdown of the federal government cost the taxpayers $24 billion so that will work against him, too. He’s not electable.
Marco Rubio, if he recovers from his near-fatal robotic performance on the debate stage, is somewhat plausible but I see more meltdowns down the road.  He comes off as lazy and misses too many Senate votes.  Rubio has a penchant for running more against Obama who is not a candidate than trying to knock off the frontrunner Trump.  He would make a decent vice-presidential candidate but nothing more.

Jeb Bush is the biggest underachiever given the size of the war chest that is financing him.  Bland and burdened with the Bush name, he is not going anywhere.

John Kasich is the most moderate in the field but is no moderate and would make a good addition to Trump’s ticket should the reality star prevail.   His over 100 town halls in New Hampshire garnered only 16 percent of the votes cast in a second place finish.  How can he muster the same amount of energy in the remaining contests?  He can’t and won’t.
Dr. Ben Carson is hanging in there but his precipitous drop in the polls is a reflection of his bizarre comments and stunning lack of knowledge.

So there we have it.  I will not predict the finalists yet but I can safely say that one of these folks will be elected as the 45th President of the U.S.  I just don’t see how.