The Church Queens' Gambit 

Gays marry the black church in a new play by Thandiwe De Shazor.

Thandiwe Thomas De Shazor should have been at gay meditation last Wednesday night. Instead, he was loafing around his West Oakland apartment, contemplating his most recent convenience store purchase — a box of macaroni & cheese — with an air of self-reproach. "My mother would kill me," he said. "She has this thing against boxed soul food." De Shazor's mother is a strict churchgoing woman, someone who married right out of high school, didn't pierce her ears until she was about thirty, and just about fell apart when her then-eighteen-year-old son told her he was gay. She's become a prototype for the prim, decorous Bible-thumpers who populate De Shazor's new one-man show, Children of the Last Days, which runs through the first week of December at Oakland's Noodle Factory Theater. He hopes that one day she'll see it and not freak out.

Children of the Last Days spawned from a novel that De Shazor began last year, shortly after moving to Oakland from his native Detroit. Originally the impetus was to write about "church queens" — closeted gay people who play an active role in their church. But as the characters began emerging in De Shazor's mind, he wanted not only to write about them, but to inhabit them. There's Precious, the tomboy in a pink crinoline dress who is shunned for un-dainty behavior (her favorite pretend game, after all, is Freddy Krueger). There's Pat the God Warrior, who vociferously protests all things vice-related at all times. Then there's the Prophetess, an aggressive Bible-thumper who sells "anointed prayer packages" at $35.95 a pop, and has the slick demeanor of a used car salesman. She's surpassed only by Alpha Hydroxy, a disco queen who mans a local sex shop, and affronts the doctrinaire attitudes of everyone around him. Hydroxy serves as the play's somewhat dubious moral compass.

Then, of course, there's the big elephant in the room. Children of the Last Days came to fruition at a timely moment — right after the passage of the now-infamous gay marriage ban Proposition 8, which had overwhelming support from African-American voters. (By now, everyone's familiar with that oft-quoted 70-30 statistic.) It's a pyrrhic victory for De Shazor since his play now has an added political exigency, though most of the themes (i.e., social conservatism, gender policing, and attitudes toward homosexuality in the black church) have preoccupied him since childhood. "That struggle is not new," he said. "Conservative people have been using gay rights to break up the black church for a while. That's kind of that one issue that they can always hammer in."

De Shazor's childhood provides an archetypal narrative about Christianity and repressed homosexuality. Growing up in the suburbs outside Detroit, he attended a strict Pentecostal church until age ten, at which point his parents divorced. The family — which then consisted of De Shazor, his mother, his sister, and his aunt — switched over to a non-denominational church on the east side of Detroit, whose congregation included the gospel singer Vickie Winans. De Shazor's aunt sang in Winans' ensemble, and would bring him along to band rehearsals at a tony house in West Bloomfield. There, young Tommy De Shazor sat face-to-face with Winans, a woman who would inspire his drag characters for years to come. "I would go downstairs and they would have the band in the basement, and Vickie Winans would be sitting there with all this hair, and shoulder pads, and just — divadom," he said. "And screaming because the sista can scream when she's singing, right? She's probably the reason I'm queer right now. I was this close to the holiest drag queen in the world."

With her garish clothes and flamboyant mannerisms, Winans pretty much encapsulated everything that De Shazor loved about church. In Children of the Last Days he takes great pleasure in satirizing a Christian environment that's so repressed but so campy at the same time — part of the joke is that every character seems to be locked in a prison of denial. Yet there's a sinister side to De Shazor's humor, as well, since so much of the play's subtext is about intolerance and self-deception. De Shazor's female characters all retain elements of the matriarchs in his family. (In fact, the Prophetess is really a composite of his grandmother, mother, and aunt.) It appears that, in addition to poking fun at his church community, the playwright also is paying tribute — and patching up a rift that never quite healed in real life.

In retrospect, De Shazor has a hard time believing that his mother never foresaw the day he would come out to her (in what turned out to be a "big explosion"). Looking back, he assesses the signs: The fact that he got smacked with a ruler in kindergarten for kissing boys; his enthusiasm over getting enlisted to help his mom sell Mary Kay cosmetics at age eleven, which allowed him to tell women about their T-zones; his love of musical theater in high school, where he took starring roles in Oklahoma and The Music Man. For years De Shazor and his mother had a tight-knit relationship, discovering secular music (Anita Baker) together after leaving the Pentecostal church, and selling cosmetics as a team. When De Shazor came out at age eighteen his mother was inconsolable. "My mother called my aunt, my aunt called my grandmother," he said. "They all assembled, and everybody was like, 'No you're not, you're lying.'" He continued: "See, it's so weird because we still don't talk about it that much. It was like this big explosion, and now it's just here."

In the years that followed, De Shazor embraced his gay identity with new ardor. He wrote a weekly television column for Detroit's LGBT periodical Between the Lines, and became the paper's de facto ambassador to "black gay Detroit." He found a chic high rise apartment downtown, with a walk-in closet and a concierge. He bartended. He acted in small theater productions. At age 25 De Shazor moved to Oakland, landed a job at a women's clothing store (which he blames for making him more queer than he actually is), and continued acting, both in an improv troupe and with Oakland Public Theater (which is co-producing Children along with local arts collective the Nursha Project).

De Shazor hasn't quite wrenched himself from Pentecostal conservatism, having spent so many years living with the double consciousness of a church queen. In Children of the Last Days he's anxious to start dialogue around all the hot-button issues related to gay civil rights and the black church. But he's still apprehensive about how the play will be perceived. "This lady who's a regular customer at the store came to see me play James Baldwin in an Oakland Public Theater production," he said. "She wants to bring her church friends to see this show. Right after church, too. I tried to warn them."

VIDEO EXTRA Prayer for the Profit: The Prophetess Jackie McGee shows Rachel Swan her divine empire.

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