Premiering his first new play since 2003’s The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, Del Shores makes a colorful comeback with Yellow, which opens June 11 and continues through July 25 at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse. Yellow chronicles a year in the life of a seemingly perfect family and the teenage gay son of a fundamentalist in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It’s certainly not the first time that the award-winning writer, who also worked on Queer as Folk, has created a gay character, but the play is uncharacteristically dark for the man behind Sordid Lives and Southern Baptist Sissies. Both creatively inspired and stifled by his dramatic detour with Sordid Lives: The Series, Logo’s 2008 prequel to his cult classic film, Shores now chooses to focus on the brighter side of his path, which included the chance to work with the late legend Rue McClanahan.
Advocate.com: How are previews of Yellow going?
Del Shores: Incredible. We’ve had some great houses with lots of wonderful enthusiasm for the play. I’m at that point of exhaustion and about 50 percent relief. The other 50 percent will come after the reviews come out.
What are early audiences responding to the most?
They’re just raving about the cast. I’m so lucky to have made this dramatic departure and be blessed with such great actors. A lot of people are also shocked at a big twist that, while it doesn’t eliminate all comedy in the second act, certainly creates a lot more drama. People didn’t realize it was going to be such a dramatic piece. I had some dramatic stuff in Trailer Trash Housewife, but this gets very heavy.
People are saying that this is your darkest work yet. What does that say about you and your own personal journey?
I started writing Southern Baptist Sissies right after I had written the screenplay for Sordid Lives, so that’s when I started on a darker path in telling the truth about my journey in the church, but there was still a lot of funny. Honestly, I had a dark period of my life between Trailer Trash and Yellow, and this play reflects that. I don’t want to go into detail because I’m trying very desperately to put all that behind me, even though it’s still ongoing, but I feel like the themes of betrayal and cowardice are huge. Subconsciously, I think that is why I chose this story — or why it chose me. This is the story I was supposed to tell.
I can only assume that some of that darkness was due to the drama surrounding Logo’s cancellation of Sordid Lives after a successful first season. You went into great detail about the complicated situation in a letter you posted on your Facebook page, which included the cast not getting paid their residuals. You also mentioned that your home was in foreclosure. Not to dwell on the past, but how are you today? Has everything been resolved?
Back on track, but no, it has not been resolved. Financially, yes, I did lose the home, but those years of struggle made me appreciate what I had. Still to this day, not one single actor has been paid his residuals — which is one of the last conversations I had with Rue — but I am glad they ran that Sordid Lives marathon as a tribute to Rue.
I try desperately not to question the journey. Part of me wishes I’d chosen a different producing partner that would’ve honored their contractual obligations, but part of my lesson has been that I’m now able to separate business from emotion, so you don’t hear me being as upset as I was before. I have no regrets of fighting for four years to get Sordid Lives on the small screen. It was a fantasy. I mean, I got to work with amazing actors like Rue McClanahan!
We obviously need to talk about Rue in a moment. But back to Yellow for a bit, what inspired you to start writing the play after Sordid Lives ended?
With the demise of the series and all the legal problems going on, I really shut down creatively. I went through a huge financial strain, and for the first time in my writing career, I felt crippled. Not that I had writer’s block, but I just didn’t want to write. Then my great husband, Jason Dottley, who had a dance single about to come out, sort of shook me and said, “You have a lot of fans out there. You should go on the road with me.” So we went on the road — and thank God for Facebook, because we knew where our demographic was — and I played 34 cities with a one-man show I wrote, Del Shores: My Sordid Life. I felt a lot of love from the fans, and it gave me my mojo back. When I came back to L.A. after the tour, I had a visit from a friend who told me a story. I knew about this story, but he told me the rest of the story — I can’t go into detail because it would be a spoiler for the play — and my mind started spinning like that little ball on my Apple computer.
Tell me about the character of Kendall, the theater-loving son of an abusive fundamentalist mother in Yellow.
Kendall is my little gay boy, played by the wonderful Matthew Scott Montgomery. I had a friend named Kendall Moore, and when I was on tour in Washington, D.C., another friend called to tell me that Kendall had hung himself. He was from a fundamentalist family in Mississippi. When I had played Nashville three weeks before, I had actually stayed with him, so it really rocked my world. I didn’t know how depressed he was, or that the damage created when he was a child would ultimately end this person’s life. So with the role of Kendall, I returned to Mississippi with him and gave him more hope. I changed the course of a young boy’s life in the play. The damage is still there, but someone comes in and rescues him. That’s the B-story weaved throughout this play, but there’s a scene with him that I think is one of the most magical scenes I’ve ever written.
How important is it for you to include gay characters in your work?
I got a little flack when I wrote Trailer Trash Housewife because there was not a gay character. Even though Willadean’s son was gay and kicked out of their home because of it, he wasn’t a character in the play. A few gays felt betrayed by me, but sometimes a story doesn’t accommodate that. I don’t sit down determined to write a gay story, but it does seem to come in, even if it’s just a mention — like in Trailer Trash, when Rayleen talks about her one lesbian encounter. It’s a part of me and it’s what I know, so I write what I know. If possible, I do want to make some statements with my work, but not everything has to be overly didactic.
Besides Kendall’s story, is there other gay content in Yellow?
I created a family that’s not the most typical family. The difference between this family and so many others, including mine, is that they had a face to put gay on. You find out that the patriarch of the family, Bobby Westmoreland, a football coach, has a gay brother. So when they talk about him, you realize that this big lug of a football coach has an acceptance and understanding of gay people.
Leslie Jordan once told me that he was a bit peeved when you hired three straight actors and one gay actor to play the four gay characters in a touring production of Southern Baptist Sissies. Do you not feel pressure or responsibility to cast more gay actors in gay roles?
I’ve gotten a lot of flack from the gay community about casting straight actors in gay roles, but I’ve also cast gay actors in straight roles — and I’ll bet you didn’t know that, but I did. I don’t discriminate against straight or gay people in casting; I’m open to good acting. Let’s take Kirk Geiger, who played Ty in the Sordid Lives movie. The day he auditioned for me, he was very gay. I didn’t feel it was my right to ask if he was gay or straight, but I cast the best actor in the role. You know what I say to people who criticize me for that? I say, “Fuck you.” In Yellow, I happen to have a straight boy playing a straight boy and a gay boy playing a gay boy, but they were the best actors for the roles. By the way, that Newsweek article, which said gay actors can’t play straight roles? That guy’s full of shit. There are so many examples to dispute that.
When you travel with your one-man show, how deeply do you explore your sexual journey? Because I imagine that audiences, whether or not they’re familiar with your oeuvre, are naturally curious about the fact you had two children with your ex-wife, accepted your homosexuality later in life, and then married a handsome man more than 20 years your junior.
Hang on, I’m writing down what you just said so I can start writing my new show. [Laughs] Yeah, I touch on all of that, but the theme of this particular show — because it’s not my last one — is more about the real stories I’ve stolen from my life and family for my work. So I do get into the real pain and damage caused by the church that I dealt with in Southern Baptist Sissies. I also dish on the stars I’ve worked with, both good and bad. If you’re an asshole and you work with me, I’m going to talk about it — and publicly.
Well, since I’m talking to The Advocate, which is where Randy Harrison trashed the writing of Queer as Folk, the show that made him successful, I start out one story by saying, “Randy Harrison is an ungrateful little shit.” As a result, I’ve gotten some angry letters from his fans.
OK, let’s talk about another star that you worked with, Rue McClanahan. Where do we even begin?
The night you and I saw each other in New York at the opening of Leslie Jordan’s My Trip Down the Pink Carpet in April, I had just come from spending the afternoon at Rue’s apartment. That was my last visit with her. Rue had had the stroke, she was still recovering from the triple bypass, so she was still speaking slowly and deliberately, but she was starting to speak very clearly. I was telling her about the Sordid movies I had planned in my head — I still own the rights to continue these characters in features and on the stage — and I said, “You gotta get better. We’re not done, Rue.” She said, “I want to play Peggy again, but honey, you may have to write a stroke into her character.” I said, “Rue, she fell and hit her head on a sink in a motel room. It would be easy to write in a little speech problem. And then we’ll just tell people your acting is more brilliant than ever.” She loved that. I left that day and really thought I’d see her again, so I was just devastated when her manager, Barbara, called to tell me she had another stroke. Her son was flying in from Austin and Rue didn’t want any kind of life support, so there was no hope. The night before she passed, I arrived at the theater knowing that they had pulled the plug and that she wouldn’t be with us much longer. It was a horrible night because I couldn’t share it with anybody. The next night, after she had passed away, we dedicated the show to her. We said, “Yellow goes golden.”
What’s one of your fondest memories of her?
First of all, she was a comedic genius. She was so quick, so sharp, and her sense of humor was so wicked. She spoke my language in so many ways. She was so loving, warm, and generous that you felt like you’d been her friend forever. I mean, she had her moments when she let you know how she felt! [Laughs] But she was never difficult, and she was a always a joy to work with. I love what she said to me the first time we spoke about the show. I sent all 12 scripts to Barbara, her manager, for Rue to read. She called the very next day and she had read all of them. She said, “Del, I never thought I’d get to play a woman in love again. I love playing a woman in love.” And after a perfect comedic beat, she said, “It doesn’t pay anything, does it?” I said, “No, it’s on Logo...” She said, “Yes, I heard, I’ll do it.” But she made it very clear when we were doing press that she made less money for the whole series than she made on one episode of The Golden Girls.
It’s been almost a year since you wrote a scathing commentary on Advocate.com in response to The Advocate putting Perez Hilton on the cover. Have you had any personal contact with him since?
It has happened that I’ve been at events where he’s at, and it’s rather awkward since I did call for a boycott of him. I’ve never had enough liquor in me to go up and confront him to his face, but I think the way I did it was the way to do it. I don’t think I’m really on his radar, but I know he’s aware of the situation because his publicist wrote me afterward and was very angry. He was so close to me at a bar recently, and I know he knew that Jason and I were there, but I’ve learned that you can ignore people at a very close proximity.
Yellow opens June 11 and runs through July 25 at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd, in West Hollywood. For tickets and more info, log onto YellowbyDelShores.com.