Entertainment

Skanks

by Louise Adams
Monday Sep 15, 2014
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Charming "Skanks" is Birmingham, Alabama's real-life "Waiting for Guffman."

Documentarian David McMahon follows gay playwright and Theatre Downtown founder Billy Ray Brewton as he scores, directs and premieres his transvestite musical "Skanks in a One-Horse Town" at the end of 2012.

Brewton's first script was penned in elementary school, and featured a character with Down Syndrome, a homeless person and a "pervert." His teacher called it the "most disturbing third grade story." This production is a "classic underdog story," set in 1978 at Studio 54, complete with "prostitutes, Conway Twitty and a lot of cocaine." Then a time machine disco ball sends the skanks back to 1878.

Most of the 20- and 30-something amateur (but talented) actors have middle class tech or service jobs (one, however, is the top gay wedding ad salesman in the country), and they squeeze in six weeks of rehearsal at nights and on weekends. After nifty moveable letters on a marquee opening titles, McMahon intersperses footage of their blocking and music sessions (original tunes composed by Flannery Hooks) with interviews of some actors and their families.

One of the skanks, Chuck Duck, is HIV-positive, and his family accepts him but not his homosexuality, a story repeated with most of the gay cast. The city is also considered the most segregated in the South, and Alabama the most conservative state.

"Being on stage is bliss."

Founded after the Civil War, the iron ore and coal town originally had five saloons and two brothels for every church, but now there's a crucifix on every corner -- "Christ-haunted," as Flannery O'Connor said. One of the dads says, "I don't want to get rid of either God or son."

Many in the cast also worship at the pigskin altar, 'Bama's Crimson Tide, causing a rift among the cast when rehearsals are scheduled on game days because "football is thicker than religion."

Although their families are surprisingly tolerant, most are not invited to the show due to songs like "Stick It Up Your Duke" (ass). Duck fell in love with performing when he played Prince in a 1985 high school talent contest, shown in grainy footage, and says that now he "only derives pleasure from theater."

Brewton dreams of moving to Chicago, but for now he is content that "Skanks" is the theater's most successful show to date. "Being on stage is bliss," he says.

A trailer for the documentary is posted at vimeo.com/67225654, and more information is available at skanksthedocumentary.com.

Louise Adams is a writer, actor, educator, yogini and nom de guerre.

This article is part of our "Reeling 32" series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

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