A year and a half ago, Arizona Onstage Productions presented a one-man show called The Bible Belt ... and Other Accessories during a dead theatrical period—the days right after New Year's. (See "Community Theater," Jan. 17, 2008.) Not many people attended the show at first, so now Arizona Onstage is reviving it—during the dead theatrical period right before Labor Day.
Why now? It's about the only time that the star, UA theatre arts major Ryan DeLuca, is available. Explains Arizona Onstage producer-director Kevin Johnson, "The UA is very possessive of their theater students, frowning on work with other theater companies during the school season (unless it is Gaslight or understudy work for Arizona Theatre Company), so I have to play by their rules.
"I also feel that I am as much (a) theater mentor to Ryan as director, and I worked my ass off the first time—almost giving up on him—(I) could not get the 'rich Jewboy' out of his voice (and) bodily kinesthetics." But the work paid off, and Johnson and DeLuca bonded during rehearsals.
And DeLuca bonded with his character, a high school student named Johnny, coming of age as a gay kid in a Texas town overrun with fundamentalist Christians.
"At first, I didn't think I had anything in common with Johnny," DeLuca admits. "But anyone can find similarities with him, because he's a young guy just figuring out what kind of person to be. Johnny wants everyone else to figure things out, too, and realize how beneficial it is just to be yourself. I'm nowhere near that right now. I'm trying to take Johnny's example and figure out how to live my own life. It's his ideas and beliefs that I mostly connect with."
Despite the odds against him, Johnny gets along with just about anybody who's willing to get along with him. His best friend is a Spanglish-spouting Chicana he works with at Dairy Queen, and one of his main adult role models is his African American home-ec teacher. Trouble is, not everybody in Cedar Springs, Texas, embraces uniqueness as readily as Johnny does.
"So it's important for Johnny to find a sense of humor in everything, and find a positive aspect to everything he's going through," DeLuca says. "The biggest part of this story is to make people understand that you have to find the brighter side."
Bible Belt is one of a series of plays about Johnny by writer and performance artist Paul Bonin-Rodriguez. The author was in Tucson a few weeks ago to polish one of his other plays, and to attend Bible Belt rehearsals.
"Ryan's really great," Bonin-Rodriguez says. "He pulled out some moments that I had never seen that way, so the play is really fun to watch with him. He keeps the rhythm perfectly."
Bonin-Rodriguez didn't catch the production last time—and DeLuca admits he didn't catch some important things about Johnny the first time, either.
"I started reading the script again and found so much that I'd missed," he says. "I'm a different person now, and different things stick out to me. Last time, it was a comedy. It's still very funny, but this time, I think we can hit some points stronger to reach out more to people who have gone through this story.
"It's a different show. The story's still there, but people will feel more connected with Johnny this time. It's a lot deeper than it was last year.
"Working with Paul was incredible. It's amazing the way he wrote this script so that people can play this role differently."
Comparing DeLuca's work to his own past performances as Johnny, Bonin-Rodriguez says, "Ryan wasn't terribly sissy, if at all, the way I imagined Johnny, yet he brought a special spirit and innocence. He has an incredible sweet and genuine quality when he's happy about something, and that created a way for me to get to know a different Johnny. I rediscovered the work in that sense."
DeLuca says that Johnny is "an average teenager trying to figure out what the heck is going on in life," and was heartened when teenagers started showing up for the last performances of last year's run.
Says director Johnson, "The initial mount was emotionally rewarding for me because of many of the families taking their kids to see it, opening up conversations about not only gender identity, but biased opinions based on what is considered 'faith'—of course, this show strikes a chord with me, being from Texas as well."
Johnson had DeLuca talk to his dad a few times to listen to his accent. But what DeLuca is really learning for this role is not an accent, but an attitude.
"I want to take school more openly, and try to find joys and more unity in our class," DeLuca says. "I'm trying to be more optimistic this year. A lot of that has to do with seeing how Johnny takes things. This year will be promising, I think."