Del Shores unites Leslie Jordan, Willam Belli and others for his film version of ‘Southern Baptist Sissies’
“They wouldn’t let me in because I had a man-purse — they said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Jordan, that’s our policy.’ That was more than 17 years ago, back when I was still drinkin’.
[Next week], I think I’m gonna show up with a great big bag and say, ‘Remember me? You have to let me in this time — I’m hosting.’”
What Jordan will be hosting is a fundraiser on Thursday for openly gay Oklahoma state Sen. Al McAffrey, who is running for a congressional House seat. And with Jordan at the helm, it’s likely to be quite a hoot … even though he stopped years ago. Knowing what sober Leslie Jordan is like, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of him wired up.
But his history with a cocktail or 12 is one of the reasons he’s so good — brilliant, even — in Southern Baptist Sissies. For those unlucky enough to missed his performance as the tipsy barfly Peanut in The MAC’s production of Sissies 13 years ago, you finally have an opportunity to see Jordan in all his glory next weekend. That’s when he’ll be in town (along with co-stars Emerson Collins and Willam Belli) for the nonfestival Texas premiere of the film version of Del Shores’ withering yet hilarious play about growing up gay in the church … and in Dallas.
SBS is littered with references to Big D, and Shores — who also directed the film — adapted screenplay to update the landmarks and make it all the more relevant.
“The [Dallas audiences] always love it, because they hear about the Rose Room and local things,” Shores says (full disclosure: It even mentions Dallas Voice). “When I originally opened the play, Andrew hung out at the Village Station; now I call it S4. And Peanut has a line about, ‘Those evil queens who hang out at Moby Dick,’ though Leslie now adds, ‘It ain’t there no more.’”
Shores — a native of Winters, Texas — has been an honorary Dallasite for years. He performs his standup here regularly, and his plays are frequently performed here; last year, Uptown Players’ staged the regional premiere of his latest, Yellow. And it was an association with Uptown Players in 2005 that indirectly enabled the film version of SBS to get made.
Shores attended Uptown’s production of Sissies and was impressed by the cast member playing the drag queen Benny: Emerson Collins. So impressed, in fact, he encouraged Collins to move to Los Angeles and pursue his career. Now, Collins is Shores’ business partner, a co-star of the movie and its producer. (More disclosure: Collins is a regular opinion columnist for Dallas Voice.)
“It’s fascinating, because this project has impacted my life repeatedly,” Collins says wistfully. “It was a big deal for me to do it originally. The first time I read it was sort of terrifying. I was just coming out, but was so familiar with [what it talked about] — it references both Baylor and the old Rose Room, which was the first gay club I ever went to.”
In the UP version, Collins played Benny, but when he and Shores were planning the movie version — a filmed version of the stage play, recorded in a theater in L.A. — Shores realized they needed to make a casting change. Collins would now be Mark, the protagonist. Then the issue became, who would play Benny?
“Emerson and I both had the same idea at the same time: Willam Belli,” Shores says, who gained fame both for his time on RuPaul’s Drag Race and for a series of hilarious YouTube music videos.
Still, taking on two of the characters has been one of the strangest, and most satisfying, aspects of Collins’ work on Southern Baptist Sissies.
“Benny did [a lot] for me in Dallas,” he says. “It was the 18th show I had done in three years, and until them, I was doing doe-eyed ingénues. Benny was an enormous stretch from my acting comport zone. I thought, ‘I could be awful in this — it’s a long way from me.’ Playing Mark has sort of been like starting over at the beginning — there were several scenes I’d never actually seen while I was in it, because I was doing costume changes. Mark is much closer to me now, and I’m much better prepared to play.”
Collins isn’t the only cast member who learned something new by working on the movie project; for Jordan, seeing the film was an eye-opening experience.
“I’ll tell ya, I always thought of that as my play, that I had to go out every night and hold it together. Then I saw rough-cut of the movie early on in Del’s living room, and I had tears in my eyes. I had no idea the work these boys had given in the film — I have never seen the show cuz I was in it!”
In fact, Shores says, Peanut wasn’t in SBS, nor was his scene partner Odette (played in the film by the great Dale Dickey) — not originally.
“Leslie is a great friend and resource for me, and when I first wrote the play, he was the first person to read [it]. He said, ‘Honey people are gonna slit their throats — it’s too dark!’” Shores knew he was right — that it needed some comic relief to counterbalance the story of four teenagers, raised in the church, who feel shame for having sexual feelings for each other — with tragic consequences. The question was, what could add the stabs of humor the show so needed? That’s another time where being Leslie Jordan’s friend came in handy.
“He’s always telling shit that he shouldn’t,” Shores says. “He’s an open book, and a raw one, and I love him for that, but there’s nothing he won’t tell!” So Shores took all of
Jordan’s stories about his days with rent-boys, where he “sat around with a cocktail in one hand and a checkbook in the other” (as Jordan explains it), and voila! Peanut was born.
“All those stories I tell as Peanut were my stories I told Del!” Jordan says. Still, there was the question of whether he’d agree to it.
“I sent it to him and he said, ‘Well thanks for exposing everything I ever told you!’ … Though trust me: There are stories of his I did not write,” Shores says. “But I told him,
‘I’m sorry, but do you think you could do the role?’ and he immediately said, ‘Well who else will do it?’”
Who else, indeed? Like the role of Brother Boy in Shores’ Sordid Lives, Peanut will forever be associated with Jordan.
“[In previews], Leslie said to me, ‘I just wish there was a way Peanut connected with one of those boys.’ So I went home that night and wrote that short, magical scene where [Peanut] tells Andrew ‘Don’t become me.’ It’s my favorite scene. When he created that role in L.A., he won every award available — and it wasn’t just for the comedy. He’s a great actor.”
The Dallas connection
When the film arrives in Dallas, it will run for three days exclusively at The Texas Theatre, with Shores, Collins, Jordan and Belli variously on hand for the post-screening Q&As. It will be something of a homecoming for all of them. Already in town for the Al McAffrey fundraiser (which Steve Kemble and Ron Corning will co-host), they’ll be reliving fond past memories of the town that gave Southern Baptist Sissies life.
“I think of Dallas as home, even though I only lived there for three years,” Collins says. And Dallas was significant for another cast member: Willam Belli, who took over the role of Benny in the film. Belli had his own stint in Dallas when he filmed Israel Luna’s Ticked Off Trannies with Knives.
“I like Dallas, but I usually stay in Fort Worth — my home away from home,” Jordan says. “I sit out with binoculars watching the cowboys — there are more in downtown Fort Worth than anywhere, with belt buckles you could serve a turkey on!”
Dallas has more complicated memories — refer to the Round-Up incident above, as well as another where Jordan was thrown out of the Rose Room (again, when he was still drinking).
“I was really drunk and got into an argument with Donna Day,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You need to lower your voice!’ I said, ‘It’s a disco! I need to talk loud! You need to come out of the bathroom and stop doing meth.’” He agrees they were right to kick him out.
Dallas is also the town where Jordan first realized he had become an alcoholic after an especially notorious moment.
“Del and I got lost one night walking back from the bars. There were a bunch of straight boys on this balcony making fun of us. Del swears I yelled back at them, ‘Any of you boys wanna fuck an old sissy?’ They chased us — we had to hide. Those were the days.”
For Shores, the Dallas homecoming is always special. The city “has always been one of my most supportive markets,” he says, and it’s always a dream to come back here.
And local audiences continually send the message, “The feeling is mutual.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 11, 2014.