In Skanks, filmmaker David McMahon introduces audiences to the the men and women of Theatre Downtown, an independent theater company housed in the back room of an antiques shop in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. The troupe is preparing to stage an original musical, Skanks in a One Horse Town. The show is raunchy and outrageous, a story about a trio of women—played by men in drag—from the golden age of disco who accidentally time travel from New York City’s famed Studio 54 nightclub to a small town in the Old West. As the film follows the show’s writer and director, Billy Ray Brewton, a gay man from nearby Pisgah, Alabama, it’s not hard to imagine where he got the inspiration for a tale of fabulous people suddenly forced to navigate a hostile environment.
“I met Billy Ray several years ago when I had briefly returned to Birmingham, my hometown,” says McMahon. “I went to see one of his plays, "We Three Queens,” and was struck by how irreverent and funny he was and how he had no regard for the rules of theater. I honestly had no agenda when I started shooting, but over the months following and in the editing room the story about this surrogate family, so to speak, emerged.”
To his credit, McMahon avoids the easy stereotypes. Instead of making a movie that manufactures drama between a few flamboyant gay men and the deeply religious residents of a conservative Alabama town, McMahon takes a broader approach. The men and women of Theatre Downtown—some gay, some not—are portrayed as a passionate, enthusiastic community theater troupe doing what they love. There are definitely shades of Waiting for Guffman, the 1997 mockumentary by Christopher Guest, but the film is a sincere snapshot of the company’s work within a community that’s mostly accepting of them, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.
“The film is definitely not an ‘us vs. them’ film,” says McMahon. “At one point we veered in that direction editorially, but it made the film seem a bit too heavy-handed. Instead it was my goal to show the different factions and how they in fact do coexist, even if it is an uneasy peace.”
The most dynamic characters in Skanks are the men at the center of that uneasy peace, the ones who are constantly trying to reconcile their sexuality with the attitudes of the community and their families. Among these is Chuck Duck (yes, that’s his real name) a hair stylist from rural Slapout, Alabama. Chuck’s parents aren’t openly hostile, but it’s clear that his sexual orientation is at odds with their deeply held Christian beliefs, something that creates a divide in the family. Chuck’s mother admits that she feels like she’s forced to choose between her love for Jesus and her love for her son.
“I don’t have an answer,” she says in the film, “but I don’t want to get rid of either one of them.”
Another character, Saxon Murrell, is shown on screen with his brother, who says he wasn’t surprised when Saxon came out, and offers a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” brand of support.
“He does all right with it,” says the brother in a gruff drawl. “He don’t try to push it off on me. It’s his little private life.”
Skanks portrays Birmingham as place where the Baptist church and Alabama football are the predominant cultural institutions, but the men and women of Theatre Downtown have carved out their own niche, a world of bawdy songs, outlandish costumes, inside jokes, and the occasional spat. There’s never any doubt that they’ll pull off their play, and they never face any real opposition from the community. As a result, the film doesn’t have a high stakes “will they or won’t they” central conflict, but it does illuminate a corner of Southern life that is often overlooked.
“In terms of challenging stereotypes, I think most Southerners know that the South is a richer and much more complex place than perhaps the media or pop culture images may tell us,” says McMahon. “The film doesn't really have an explicit conflict, but underneath the humor and the light-heartedness is a real need to belong, to be accepted. And I think the play fulfills that need for the cast. I think what is at stake for them is the world that they have created, is their safe space, their surrogate family.”
The sense of family is evident early in the film. The first read-through is like a holiday gathering, close friends crowded around a table telling stories and cracking wise. As opening night approaches, the cast and crew spend every moment they can together, rehearsing on nights and weekends, often retiring to someone’s apartment to stand around a piano, drinking and singing show tunes.
Not surprisingly, the people of Downtown Theatre are very protective of this world they’ve created. At one point, the film includes a montage of various players being asked if they plan to invite family members or co-workers to see Skanks in a One Horse Town. There’s some hemming and hawing, but the answer is, universally, no. One cast member, a raven-haired beauty rocking gently on a porch swing, captures the theme of the film perfectly with her response:
“It doesn’t really matter what other people think, but I also don’t want to deal with them knowing and create some sort of rift when there need not be one.”
Skanks screens at the New Orleans Film Festival Friday, October 17, 2014, 9:30 p.m. and Monday, October 20, 2014, 7:45 p.m. at the Theatres at Canal Place. For more info and tickets, visit the festival website. For more info on the film, visit the official site.
Brad Rhines writes in New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter.