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Del Shores and Emerson Collins proud of “Southern Baptist Sissies” | VIDEO

Del Shores and Emerson Collins are in a rather upbeat mood on this particular day, and with a very good reason.

The film version of Shores’ hit play “Southern Baptist Sissies” has been getting rave reviews and audience praise since its world premiere in mid-July at Outfest in Los Angeles. It's the story of four "sissy" boys growing up and singing in the choir at a Southern Baptist Church in Texas, who each take a different path toward reconciling the conflict between the teachings of the church and their sexuality.

“Sissies” is now playing on the film festival circuit, and has already won audience awards deep in the heart of Dixie at the Birmingham SHOUT Film Festival, the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the North Louisiana Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

On Thursday, “Southern Baptist Sissies” will get another prestigious honor, opening the sixth annual Cinema Diverse: The Palm Springs Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at 5:30 pm at the Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs.

San Diego audiences will soon get to see “Southern Baptist Sissies,” scheduled at 5 pm Friday, Oct. 4, during the San Diego Film Festival at the Reading Theater, 701 Fifth Ave. downtown.

“Southern Baptist Sissies” will also be shown in Fresno, Calif. and Cincinnati, Ohio on Sept. 22; Greensboro, N.C. on Oct. 6; Atlanta on Oct. 9; Fort Worth, Texas on Oct. 10; Pittsburgh on Oct. 16 and Seattle on Oct. 20. More bookings are expected.

The film festival circuit has Shores and Collins racking up frequent-flier miles, and both will be in Palm Springs and San Diego for the screening of “Southern Baptist Sissies” and the Q&A sessions afterwards.

About the plot

“Southern Baptist Sissies” takes a humorous and painful look at the complicated lives of four best friends growing up in Texas and singing in the choir of a Southern Baptist Church, where homophobia runs rampant from the pulpit to the congregation.

The story is narrated by Mark Lee Fuller (played by Collins), known as “the thinker” who questions the interpretation of the Bible as well as his sexuality. His best friends are Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery), who is struggling to accept his sexual orientation, and Benny (Willam Belli), who says what the hell and become a fabulous drag queen. And then there is T.J. (Luke Stratte-McClure), Mark’s first love who is in complete denial about his homosexuality and full of self-loathing because he made love to a boy.

Shores wrote the play and screenplay and directed the film, while Collins was the producer and had the starring role. The two men, even though from different generations, still found a lot of common ground as children of preachers who attended Baylor University in the heart of the Bible Belt in Texas.

The two of them clearly admire and respect each other, evidenced by their glowing praise of each other’s work ethic and performances in “Southern Baptist Sissies.”

“Every single one brought their A-game to this film,” Shores said, later explaining how he gets the most out of his actors. "Give me a fucked up actor and I will get a fabulous performance!"

Shores saluted Collins' acting. “His performance was so good," he said. "Emerson immersed himself as Mark. ‘Em’ never missed a word.”

The film had a 10-day shoot: eight days without an audience, plus two days and four shows with a live audience. Shores said he filmed out of sequence for most of the shoot, to give himself as many shots and angles as possible. The film budget was less than $200,000, and about half the money was raised via indegogo.

Collins said the film was a “challenging concept” to accomplish, but he was pleased with the results. “The actors were so solid,” he said. “The filming was not as excruciating as we feared.”

Shores was pleased to finish without requiring overtime, and Collins bragged about coming in one day earlier than budgeted.

Emerson Collins’ challenging role

“Em had the most challenging role” as Mark, Shores said, noting that the actor had played Benny the drag queen in three theater productions. “The character of Mark is unique in that he ages from young to older in the play, from age 8 to adult. He is not only a character but also the narrator.”

For Collins, Mark was his dream part.

“This is the most complex role that I have ever played,” Collins said. “It is definitely the most challenging of my career.”

Shores has seen his play on stage many times, and he still gets the chills seeing it performed, especially in the movie version that he filmed.

“The scene at the end of Act I, when T.J. is breaking up with the young Mark, is one of the most devastating scenes that I’ve ever seen,” Shores said. “I absolutely adore Em’s performance in this scene. It is gut-wrenching.”

The Texas connection

Del Shores and Texas is a love-hate thing. He is a native of Texas. His plays are about it. His career and his fame are because of it. And he freely admits it. He loves Texas, for its bigger-than-life legends like Gov. Ann Richards, and hates Texas, for its homophobic leaders like Gov. Rick Perry.

“I would not have a career without Texas,” Shores said. “Yes, I have a love/hate relationship with Texas!”

Like Shores, Collins see hope in Texas, especially in its big cities and with its young people. “We need a good Democrat,” Collins said. “We need another Ann Richards.”

Shores has coined a special name for Perry, the longest-serving governor in the Lone Star State who finally announced that he will not seek re-election: “douche-nozzle.” He also despises George W. Bush, calling it the “saddest day in Texas when he was elected.”

The history of “Southern Baptist Sissies”

Shores said the “Southern Baptist Sissies” play has its roots in the 1990s.

“I wrote it as a tragedy, first, because of the rage I was feeling toward the Baptist Church,” he said. “What I was seeing in the church [the homophobia, the anti-gay bashing] was unbearable. And I saw that one of the killers of Matthew Shepard had pictures of Jesus in his home.”

Like many Southern men, Shores grew up in the church … and in the theater, where his mom was a high school drama teacher. Naturally he discovered a clash in ideology and tolerance, an eye-opening experience for young and naïve boys who had been taught differently in the church and their communities.
All of this anger and rage against the church went into the original version of “Southern Baptist Sissies.”

But when Shores showed the play to his longtime friend, the diminutive comedic actor Leslie Jordan, Jordan was not impressed.

“Del,” Jordan drawled out, “people are going to slice their wrists after seeing this!”

Shores got the message, and revised the play.

In the movie, Leslie Jordan plays Peanut, a lonely older gay man who makes a bar connection with fellow lush Odette (Dale Dickey).

“They play two lost souls in a gay bar,” Shores said, explaining how he changed up the original play. “It was like two plays collided!”

“Les was a little reluctant at first to do Peanut,” Shores said “He grew up in the pews. His dad was a deacon in the church.”

But Jordan came around, and the film is so much better with his touching and lovable performance opposite the extremely talented Dickey, who is best known for her role as Martha Bozeman in the HBO hit “True Blood.”

The message of “Southern Baptist Sissies”

Shores and Collins believe audiences can find healing in “Southern Baptist Sissies.” Anybody who has endured anti-gay bashing from the pulpit can find redemption in the movie, they say.

“People can relate to the movie and the characters,” Collins said.

The unofficial theme for the movie is simple: "How do you stop the HATE that is spewed in the name of the Lord?"

Shores tells of receiving many letters from people who have lived through similar experiences as the characters in "Sissies," who say they can now start healing after seeing that they were not alone in this guilt and shaming process often fostered by religious institutions. He says the movie and play inspire them to accept being gay and to question those who wish to demean them and claim that they will be denied the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Despite what has happened to them in church, both men remain passionate about religion and faith. They encourage bullied and battered LGBT people to reach out to organizations like The Trevor Project if they feel desperate or suicidal. Anti-gay bullying and suicide are issues explored in “Southern Baptist Sissies,” but will remain outside of discussion so as not to spoil the plot.

Collins said he and Stratte-McClure, who played T.J., spend a lot of time talking about homophobia and self-loathing. “We decided to let the words to wash over us,” Collins said. “We both knew the feeling of people getting rejected.”

Shores’ favorite scene, at the end of Act I, is truly a breathtaking, emotional moment when Mark asks T.J., who has just rejected him: “How can love be wrong?”

“In that moment, you can see the desperation in Luke’s eyes,” Shore said. “It is so much more difficult than crying.”

And, in the utmost tribute to the actor that Stratte-McClure is, Shore credits him for the power of that scene. “I didn’t really direct that scene,” Shore said. “It was all Luke. Luke did it.”

A post-note

Shores said he is happy with the progress of LGBT rights in the U.S., even though he wishes it move at a faster pace. He calls it a “losing battle” to be in opposition to gay rights in America.

If he gets his ultimate wish, “Southern Baptist Sissies” will become a “period piece” in moviemaking history. Ponder on that for a minute.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.