Delta Burke talks backstage at Mississippi Rising, a benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims, on October 1, 2005.
(Marianne Todd/Getty Images)
When she came to fame as the small-screen's answer to Liz Taylor, Delta Burke knew she'd found her dream role. She played Suzanne Sugarbaker, the self-centered, pouty, adorable, glamour girl on "Designing Women" — just the kind of role a former Miss Florida ought to play.
But her seesaw weight made her tasty tabloid fodder; so did her struggles with depression, diabetes and TV producers. Not that her life has been miserable. She and her husband, "Jericho" star Gerald McRaney, maintain homes in Los Angeles and New Orleans; she made her fashion mark with a plus-size clothing line that reinforces the title of her book, "Delta Style: Eve Wasn't a Size 6 and Neither Am I."
But, fundamentally, Burke has always been an actress. Now she's back at her craft in a different venue, the stage. She and "Will and Grace" Emmy-winner Leslie Jordan top the bill in a Del Shores tour, "Southern Baptist Sissies" and "Sordid Lives." Burke is in "Sissies"; Jordan is in both shows.
Burke says that Shores, writer of TV's "Queer as Folk" and of the immensely successful play "Daddy's Dyin' (Who's Got the Will?)," has a distinctive voice: Southern, gay, agile enough to jump from comedy to pathos in a heartbeat. She realized in an instant that his work was made for her.
"I just knew I had to play some role," she said of the double bill, a hit in California before it went on tour. "I am so glad I found Del.
"He's been a great friend and, on top of that, he's so creative. His work just blows me away."
As does much else. In a telephone conversation about the tour and other things, Burke sounded like a woman of strong enthusiasms and shrewd self-assessment. Q: Is your character in "Southern Baptist Sissies" like Suzanne?A:
No! No no no no no! You have to put a lot of time between you and a beloved character. I mean, I am very grateful for Suzanne, a wonderful part that I performed with a wonderful group of people. But I can't give the audience that, without the writers and the other performers. Q: Hasn't enough time passed?A:
Not with reruns! It's been 20 years since we started "Designing Women," but people who look full-grown to me still come up to say that they grew up with Suzanne.
Now I'm at the point where I need to start doing the mamma parts that don't look very good — the OLD mamma parts.Q: You can't possibly be old enough for that.A:
I just turned 50, and I am celebrating in every city we go to. My manager can't stand it, but I was never very good at lying.
I am in the adolescent stage of middle age. I don't look like an old mamma yet, but I don't look young enough for a lead. That is the world I live in.
You can't just go shopping all the time, even if you love shopping the way I do! That won't keep you in the game. Right now, it's enough just to be acting. You have to keep it meaningful. Q: And Del Shores' plays are meaningful to you?A:
Not just to me. Del has received letters from people who say, this was their story, that was their mother. People have said, "I didn't commit suicide because of your show." They say, "I
don't want to be Andrew, I want to be Mark." Mark is the character who questions things. People see their lives up there on stage. It's very emotional.
It touches a pain that's so deep. People who have gay friends, like me — and my sister is gay — we might think Del exaggerates. And he's very funny, it's true. But really, you cannot know the pain he's talking about unless you've been there. It's like childbirth or Vietnam. Q: Still, you must feel at home in Shore's landscape — the small Southern community.A:
I grew up in Orlando, which was not a very big town. But Del's town was smaller, and the church community was smaller. When you're raised Southern Baptist and you love the church, (being gay) really rocks your world.
The church was not a huge part of my life. But it was of Del's. I just went to church on Sunday, but he was very involved in it. For people like him, church was their whole life in many ways, and then everything changed. To me, that seemed not very Christian. It's a pretty extreme world. Q: Do you have to be gay to enjoy these plays? Southern? Gay and Southern?A:
That's what's so great about Del's shows. You'd think only a certain community would really appreciate them, but that is not the case.
"Sordid Lives" begins to open up a whole other world to people, through comedy. And that also happens through "Sissies," on a more serious note.
You don't expect it. It makes you see people in a different light and not stereotype. I think I am pretty open and together about this, but these plays open your eyes even more. Q: Does the show draw big, diverse audiences?A:
I've been really surprised. They say there is no theater audience in LA, but people packed this little house. I'm not kidding — people came back like 11 times. And it was a huge hit in Palm Springs, overwhelming. And now we're in these bigger houses.
What's kind of cool is, this feels like a rep company. It's not a grueling road schedule. We have down time. We feel like a little vaudeville troupe.
I am not going to win the Oscar in a movie like I had always planned to. Fine. But I don't have that fierce feeling of needing to accomplish something by a certain age, either.
I want to work with nice people. I want something really interesting to do. Otherwise, it isn't worth the aggravation. I just want a well-written character to play, a real human being. I know my time will come around again.