Learning to love yourself can be one of the hardest things in the world — and for James Solomon Benn, it’s taken his whole life.
And as the the gay son of an Indianapolis pastor, it’s been no small task.
Benn, whose play will run in Indy Fringe for the first time, decided to write the show Little Butchie Sings
to tell his story of self-acceptance.
“This character I do is Little Butchie, who is sort of my bratty inner child,” says Benn. “Little Butchie kind of needs to be healed from what he went through as a young gay child and all the barriers that came up against him to love himself and become a self-actualized authentic person. From the church upbringing, to the Bible telling you, ‘You’re going to burn in hell. This is against God.’
“[The] barriers that I witnessed in church, that gave me pause as a gay kid, were the way I saw effeminate men and strong [butch] women were treated,” says Benn. “Church folks smiled in their face, but talked about them negatively behind their back. I didn’t want to be the butt of jokes like them.
“He [Butchie] and I struggled dealing with our homosexuality even though I had loving parents, still, it was the sixties when I was a kid,” says Benn. “… So the world hadn’t changed. There was no Will and Grace on TV, no strong gay men, Stonewall didn’t happen until 69. A lot of gay men were still in the closet, and certainly as kids everything around us was indoctrinating to get married.”
He gave the example of being part of a fundraiser at his father’s African Methodist Episcopal church where he and a young girl had to say fake I-dos and a walk down the aisle.
“[It told me] this is who you are supposed to be,” says Benn. “ … That’s your life, there is no other choice.”
As a child Benn says he was — like so many men — pressured to play sports and be assertive. Because of his resistance, he was often bullied. Much of the play retells stories from his childhood, like when he was teased in grade school.
He recalls a girl walking up to him and saying “James, you’ve got titties.”
“That crushed me,” says Benn. “I was mortified … so I’m wondering then, am I a bro, am I a woman — what am I? How do I fit?”
The hatred he experienced was amplified by instances of racism. He remembers going to a Waffle House as a teenager and the waitress saying, “Well, what will you have, Sambo?”
Benn went onto say how Indianapolis has had a long history of racial issues, from the Klan controlling state government in the ‘20s, to Black people only being allowed to go to a small amusement park that was here one day a month.
“We couldn’t play their reindeer games,” says Benn.
For him, growing up in the Midwest was not filled with Hoosier hospitality, or the comforting safety of home — it wasn’t until he found the open stage of the theater that he began to also find himself.
“Theater is a safe place for gay people, [so I thought] maybe I can do that,” says Benn.
At his high school, Shortridge, Benn enrolled in a cappella groups and choir, but his true musical training came from Bethel, his father’s church.
“That’s where I was exposed [to music],” says Benn.
His artistic love flourished when he later attended Herron School of Art for graphic design.
“Even while I was at Herron I was running around the painting studios singing Broadway show tunes,” laughs Benn.
It was there that he finally decided to come out of the closet. He sat down and wrote a letter to his father, telling him that he was gay. His father penned back and said: “You are my son and nothing can change that.”
“And he said that I was his hero,” says Benn quietly. “… He supported me at a time when people weren’t supporting gay people.”
Benn hopes his show will lend that same support.
The show has been done before in New York, but has since been revamped to include more material pertaining to the Black Lives Matter and LGBT movements. Little Butchie Sings includes a lot of just that — singing. It also laces together comedy and storytelling. Because the play was originally far longer than the 45 minutes allotted for Fringe shows, costume changes will take place on stage.
“Indy Fringe is a different animal,” says Benn. “ … If you go over they shut the lights off.”
Benn was able to cut down costs by borrowing costumes and made the 10-minute set changes as painless as possible by having minimal props. But for him the music and the message are what gives him unwavering faith in the show.
“We all have that God energy,” says Benn. “I think breath is the breath of God. So you need to tap into that — call it prayer, call it meditation, call it whatever … You got to love yourself before you can love anyone in this world. So that’s what I have been working on, that self-love piece. I am trying to let other people know, take that road, try that.
“Whatever you are going through, whoever has told you you’re not good enough or don’t belong, that is not true,” says Benn. “Don’t hold onto that. Let it go. Let it roll off your back.”