Out Front Theatre Company is currently presenting Del Shores’ comedy “Sordid Lives,” directed by Jacob Demlow, running through May 20. The play was first performed in Los Angeles in 1996 and became a film in 2000, which has become a cult classic, especially (but not exclusively) with LGBTQ fans in the South.
Rather than try to compete with the beloved film, director Demlow and Out Front decided to bring a new spin to the show by having an all African-American cast portray the “Sordid Lives” family members. As cast member TK Habtemariam told Atlanta’s Q Magazine, “It’s funny to see this country hick family through the lens of a black family. It goes to show than anyone can be country.”
To say that “Sordid Lives” is outrageously over the top is putting it mildly. The show shamelessly stereotypes rural, small-town (Winters, Texas) folks of every age, sex, and sexual persuasion. Yet none of this matters. We laugh at the sheer, complete looniness of the characters and goings-on.
But you need an entire cast who is not afraid to swing for the fences. Out Front has that, thank heavens. The premise itself is wacky: When Peggy, a good Christian woman, hits her head on the sink of a seedy motel room and bleeds to death after tripping over her lover’s wooden legs after a clandestine tryst, chaos erupts in Winters. Peggy’s family must now deal with their own demons and skeletons in the closet while preparing for what could be a most embarrassing funeral.
Peggy has two grown daughters: the thoroughly repressed Latrelle (Britny Horton) and the fun-loving LaVonda (Brittani Minnieweather), who wage a hilarious two-day battle over whether Mama should be buried in her favorite fur stole.
Furthermore, they have a grown brother called Brother Boy (made famous by actor Leslie Jordan’s inimitable film portrayal) who has been institutionalized for 23 years by his parents for being a cross-dressing homosexual; Brother Boy (TK Habtemariam) is obsessed with country music queens, especially Tammy Wynette. LaVonda thinks he should be released and that he has every right to attend his mother’s funeral.
Oh yes—Ty (Jason-Jamal Ligon) is Latrelle’s closeted gay son who has left town and moved to Hollywood to become an actor. As a prelude to several scenes, Ty offers some soft-spoken soliloquies about his repressed youth and the emotional journey he has traveled so he can come home and out himself. Mr. Ligon’s easy-going approach to Ty is a nice contrast to the wacky histrionics around him.
Darrell D. Grant, Bert Lyons, and Jordan Ford are especially memorable as bar flies, along with Wendy Melkonian, who as Juanita turns in the funniest portrayal of a town drunk I have ever seen. Through some mysterious, slow-motion alchemy (at one point you’ll notice she has a cigarette in each hand) she becomes mesmerizing, and I normally don’t find drunks very amusing. But Juanita’s in her own little world, and you can’t look away.
By the way, Mr. Habtemariam deserves plaudits for a very funny Brother Boy; he’s about three times as tall as Leslie Jordan, yet he quickly pulls you into his character’s funny-sad world.
Jessica McGuire’s Dr. Eve Bolinger (Doctor Evil) wants to de-gay Brother Boy so she can become famous and rich. As written, she is neither likable nor very funny, but Ms. McGuire makes it work.
Other members of an exceptional cast include Lisa Boyd, Fracena Byrd, and Abby Holland. Director Demlow has done a nice job with seamless direction and lets his large cast shine.
By the way, playwright Del Shores will host talk-back performances on May 19-20; he’ll also present a new one-person show on May 20. Check the theatre website for details.
For more information, visit outfronttheatre.com.