In October 2007, the Utah Pride Center’s National Coming Out Day Breakfast had a special guest. Although she couldn’t be there in person, Sister Dottie S. Dixon, the outspoken, outrageous Spanish Fork Mormon mom with a gay son and a heart as big as the Great Salt Lake, addressed those in attendance via video live cast— Donnie, her gay son, filling in as a somewhat inept cameraman (and husband Don tripping over the cables and disconnecting the camera from time to time). As usual, Dottie’s unique perspective and her skill at storytelling had the crowd in tears of laughter, and wondering what many fans of her twice-weekly radio show have wondered since Sister Dottie first went on the air:
Is she for real?
For an answer to their question, the attendees at the breakfast needed to look no further than Charles Frost, who sat in the audience listening to Dottie’s sermonizing. In fact, many did—only they looked right through him.
“Nobody made the connection,” he laughs. “Not even people at my table!”
That’s right. Sister Dottie is none other than Frost, a 54-year-old actor best known, perhaps, for his role as a Mormon father who loses his son to suicide in Carolyn Pearson’s Facing East, as well as a number of other roles at Salt Lake Acting Company. His life, Frost says, parallels that of his creation in many ways. Like her he has a Mormon background, a BYU education, and hails from “Spaneesh Fark.” Although now divorced and out as a gay man, Frost was also married for 20 years and is a parent to four children.
“Dottie’s sort of a manifestation of my mother, who is no longer living, and some of her friends,” explained Frost, in an interview. “I channel her frequently [when performing as Sister Dottie].” He’s been channeling her now for the better part of three years, and will do so on stage this May when The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon, the play he wrote with KRCL producer and QSaltLake columnist Troy Williams debuts at the Rose Wagner Theatre.
As many of Dottie’s fans well know, the Mormon mom, her colorful friends, family and ward members, first appeared on KRCL’s Now Queer This, a now-defunct radio program focusing on gay activism in Utah that ran from 2006 through July 2007.
As Frost tells it, his long time friend Williams asked him to create a character for the show that resembled those Frost had played in a recent production of A Tuna Christmas—a play in which two male actors play over a dozen outrageous people (of both sexes) who reside in the small Texas town named in the title. Frost quickly decided that he wanted to play a character who was in many ways his opposite: namely, a still-practicing Mormon and a woman. In honor of the Spanish Fork women he had known as a child, Frost named her for his mother and her best friend. But don’t ask him about her middle initial—that’s a secret.
“I know what in my heart her middle name is, but I haven’t shared it, and I don’t think I’ll share it today,” he said. But Frost did add that the S. ties into Dottie’s genealogy, which is as rich, varied and detailed as any real Mormon’s—up to including an ancestor named Heber Maxwell O’Donovan who was part of the original Mormon wagon train.
“I think [women characters] are fun for a lot of actors to do, and I wanted to do a character who was working on what Now Queer This was all about, but from the inside perspective,” he explains. “So I thought, ‘I want her to be an active Mormon, and someone who is outspoken and stands up for the marginalized, the disenfranchised people of the world, GLBT but also homeless, cultural issues. She has an opinion about all of those. She may not always be exactly correct, but her heart is in the right place.”
After Williams mastered Dottie’s nasal and grammatically creative “Spaneesh” dialect, the two men penned a three-minute episode (or “Dottiesodes” as they call them), which aired each week. Listeners responded instantly to Dottie’s misadventures on What Not, What Have You & Such as That with Sister Dottie S. Dixon, from Dottie’s discussions of her Mormon heritage, to rants about her enemies at church to rants over the local and national legislature’s more vindictive anti-gay actions.
“She’s really resonated with people,” said Frost. “I’ll have young men on Facebook send me emails or messages saying, ‘I wish you were my mother, I wish you could talk to my mother.’ It always warms my heart, and I think, ‘I wish I could too, but she’d probably be real surprised if I walked up!’”
“I don’t break their illusion and tell them hey I’m an actor,” he continues. “But a lot of people so much hope and want a character to exist like this in the world, somebody who is on the inside who loves and cares and dares to speak out and push against those people who are what I call ‘sheeple,’ who follow everything blindly.”
Dottie became so popular that when Williams decided it was time for Now Queer This to end that even KRCL’s producer insisted that she stay. What Not, What Have You & Such as That is now a twice-weekly fixture on KRCL on Wednesday at 1:00 p.m.
As the two continued writing and recording Dottiesodes, Frost says they found that they were both wondering if they should give the elusive Sister D. – who never appears in public—her own play.
“The play got bigger and bigger in our minds, and we got thinking, ‘Oh we could have a blast and say so much, and she could be a messenger, and she could be a light and she could also bring a lot of laughter to the stage!’” said Frost.
“There’s been so many plays where tragedy is the theme around LGBT issues, and it still happens and it’s still important … but I wanted to make it a comedy, to take a comic approach to very serious issues.”
In the 90 minute play, Sister Dottie tackles such comedic topics as teaching the audience how to speak “Spaneesh” and recounting such incidents as the time she got lost at Burning Man (after taking a wrong turn on a trip to Mesquite), and the time she is “incarcinated in the Utah County Women’s Jail after a protest that goes horribly wrong.
“She turns that place around let me tell you,” Frost said, laughing.
“But it’s not like the play is 90 minute of sheer raucous laughter,” he explained. “There are some very poignant moments where Dottie goes through her deep, dark night of coming to grips with some things.”
These things include, of course, not only being a member of, and loving, a church that does harm to its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, but coming to terms with her son being gay—a fact which Dottie, despite her tolerant and loving heart, does not come to terms with immediately.
“She struggles like a lot of Mormons do … but she comes around and decides here is no choice when it comes to my child, and if they’re going to make me chose between my church and my child, I’ve chosen,” said Frost.
In naming the play The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon, Williams and Frost hoped not to evoke the recent Mel Gibson film about Jesus Christ, but the hagiography of another Christian figure—St. Joan of Arc who, like Dottie, was closely tied to her faith even while fighting against it.
“We centered the play around the theme that ‘well-behaved women seldom make history,’ and Dottie gets less and less well behaved as the play progresses,” said Frost.
Dottie will be joined on her journey by her best friend, Dartsey Fox-Morland, a silent character who will provide both piano accompaniment and morale support in Dottie’s more self-conscious moments. Like the play itself their relationship, said Frost, varies from the extremes of “Lucy and Ethel” farce to heavy drama.
At press time, the play’s 35 page script is complete, and rehearsals will begin March 5 under the direction of former QSaltLake columnist Laurie Mecham. Until then, Frost faces his least favorite thing about acting: memorization.
“I wish somebody would invent something so you could read the script and it would be stored in your short term memory,” he groaned.
Ultimately, Frost hopes Sister Dottie’s stage debut will not only entertain and comfort, but get its audience—many of whom may be straight or practicing Mormons—to think about issues that effect the gay community, such as Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative and the passage of Proposition 8 in California—two things about which Sister Dottie definitely has an opinion.
“We take that to the most minute aspect which is Donny [and how these things effect him], and then we expand it out to a funnel,” said Frost. “Dottie has some opinions abut Prop. 8 and she talks about that; she has some opinions about the Utah legislature and she talks about that; she has some opinions about what it means to have human dignity; she talks about being generous and having gratitude, but standing up for yourself and being strong and courageous” even if you’re not in the majority.
Ultimately, Frost hopes that Sister Dottie’s love can teach gay people how to love themselves as unconditionally as she does—a challenge he thinks that gay people all over still face today.
“Isn’t the most important love there is in life, is the love you have when you look in the mirror?” he asks. “Without that self love, how can you truly love others and give back to others and leave a legacy in this life if you don’t first put those arms around you?”
The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon will run from May 1 – 17 at the Rose Wagner theatre, 138 W 300 S. Tickets can be purchased at arttix.org.