When Michael and Zach Zakar decided six years ago to admit they were gay, the response was mixed.
“By the time we were 18, we had come out to all our friends,” says Zach. The response? “OK, cool.”
Except for their mom, an uber-Catholic, dedicated homophobe, who bristled at the prospect of having two gay sons among her four children.
“I didn’t come out of the closet," Zach remembers. "She dragged me out."
But instead of turning their wrath on a loving, but decidedly homo-antithetical matriarch, the twins, now 26, chose a gentler approach. They wrote a humorous memoir, Pray the Gay Away, about her over-the-top behaviors – which included dousing them with holy water to exorcise their evil LGBTQ traits and feeding them “holy grapes” in an attempt to “de-gay” them.
The Arab-American twins turned the book into an eponymous stage production, which debuted in late August and continues through September 8 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
Describing the show as “a gay version of Book of Mormon,” the Zakars say it draws “100 percent” of its story from their memoir, though the stage version is exaggerated for comedic value.
In reality, they said, Mom threw holy water on the two of them to shoo away their gay demons. In the show, they’ve ramped up that anecdote by having Mother douse the kids with sacred water shot from a squirt gun.
“The word ‘gay’ doesn’t have a proper translation” to the heterosexual community, notes Michael. “They don’t know what ‘gay’ is. They think it’s a disease.”
And so, in the show, their mother sets out to cure it. She battles what she perceives as the “evil” of homosexuality and the indignity of its stigma. At the same time, she lives and breathes her devotion to the family’s Middle Eastern values and heritage. While the brothers poke fun at their mom's tenacious efforts, they don’t seem to bear resentment.
“Our mom would shove religion down our throats,” Zach jokes. “But honestly, we are who we are because of our upbringing. The message of Christianity – and any religion – is acceptance and love for all.”
“It was confusing for our mom,” Zach admits. “In Iraq, being gay isn’t something you discuss openly. She was worried the community would talk about us in a negative light. It was difficult to see her take it so hard. She basically cried and prayed for 90 percent of our coming-out process.”
They did note that in the stage production, their Arab-American personae are not overly emphasized. The interplay between mom and her two gay sons finding their way out of the closet takes center stage.
Natives of Detroit and sons of first-generation Iraqi immigrants, Michael and Zach – who call themselves the “Iraqi Mary-Kate & Ashley” – started out as Instagram models with thousands of followers.
They have become spokesmen for LGBTQ people from Middle Eastern cultures. They grew up as Chaldean Catholics, a sub-group with roots in ancient Assyria. A group of Chaldeans lives in southeastern Michigan, where the Zakars are from.
Hearkening back to the memoir that bore the play, the Zakars say the book "sort of wrote itself.”
“Every time there was a milestone moment with our mom, we’d write it down on a sticky note,” says Zach. Once the brothers collected more than a dozen of these moments of matriarchal madness, they put them together for a book that mined the hilarity and awkwardness of those often appalling times.
Next came the show, written by the Zakars with Bobby Brower. The performance is directed by Eric Swanson and produced by Murray & Peter Present.
The Zakar brothers admit the production is a work in progress. Initially, they considered using a “really, really big drag queen” in the mother role, but have since tossed that out.
They turned to a stage veteran who truly embodies the role. In the role of Mom is actor Vince Kelley, a “female impersonator” who disdains the term "drag queen." Jeffrey Fox takes the role of a priest and several other characters, while Cory Shorter is known as “man in suit.” The production boasts an all-gay cast, and while it features adult humor and some nudity, the Zakar twins say it's a family-friendly show.
Pray Away the Gay. 8 p.m. Thursday, September 5, through Sunday, September 8, at Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; browardcenter.org. Tickets cost $37.40 and $53.55 via ticketmaster.com.