Film and TV

Skanks Documents a Community Drag Musical in Birmingham, Alabama

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Westword: Talk about Skanks.

David McMahon: The movie is about a community theater in Birmingham, Alabama, which is my hometown, that does an original drag musical called Skanks in a One Horse Town. We follow them through the course of rehearsal and performance and see what the cast and creators' lives are like. It's funny and sweet and interesting as well. How did you pick this subject?

I am originally from Birmingham, but I've lived in New York for a number of years; however, I go home all the time. My family is there. I had just finished working on my previous film, which was a documentary about a serial killer in South Louisiana called Bayou Blue, about a man who raped and murdered 23 men. As you can imagine, it's a very depressing, hopeless story. I was looking for something to do after it.

The guy who wrote Skanks in a One Horse Town is a guy named Billy Ray Brewton. I had seen one of his shows in Birmingham earlier. I was thinking it was going to be not particularly interesting. It turned out to be surprisingly irreverent and vulgar. Billy Ray has no respect for the rules of theater, which I really admired. A friend suggested that I should contact him about following one of his shows. The timing worked out perfectly. I did. They were about to go into rehearsal. So we started. That's how it happened.

Talk about some of the conflicts that come up in the film.

It's interesting. The film itself immerses you. It doesn't operate in a simple, conflict way. What emerges is that there are a couple of gay actors in the film who have issues with their families. In particular, there is conflict between them and their evangelical, fundamentalist Christian parents. That emerges as the film goes on. Generally, it's about a group of people who have created this world, in a conservative place, who have created a very open-minded liberal pocket within that and who have forced a strong sense of community independent of the town around them.

I think what they maybe don't get from the outside world is the family they get from each other. They really formed a surrogate family to love and support each other and to celebrate each other. Maybe that's not something that happens very often, and not just in Alabama, but all over the country, actually.

I would say the biggest conflict is between religion and sexuality, and I think that plays out both as a battle between parents and children and particularly within parents themselves. It's actually kind of hard to watch the torment that some of these people are going through.

The parents particularly?

Yeah. There's a guy in it named Chuck Duck. His mother says in the film, "I don't know what to do. I love my son. I love my God. I don't want to get rid of either one of them."

I wanted to say, "Just go to a different church," but I couldn't. It's a real torment. I think it's easy to be dismissive of those types of people. I didn't want to do that with this film. I wanted to be respectful and really examine that conflict.

Do you have a sense of why that conflict exists in people?

I think it's religion. The question is why are some people are liberal Christians and some people are conservative Christians or whatever. With this example, it is strictly people who have a very literal, strict interpretation of the Bible, and there's just no getting around that. We can go into a long conversation about why that happens.

It's interesting. In Colorado, too, I know Denver's awesome and open-minded, but you have Colorado Springs with the New Life Church and Focus on the Family out there. That sort of mindset in Colorado Springs is pretty pervasive in Alabama. It's becoming more so. It wasn't like that so much when I was growing up there. That's not to denigrate religions, but that ruthless, strict interpretation and closed-mindedness has proliferated pretty strongly in the past twenty years.

Read on for more from David McMahon.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris