My Hebrew Bible class provided creative assignments to make the scriptures come alive. For example, for the Precept for Samson and Delilah, we were asked to pitch a script proposal to Steven Spielberg for a modern version of the classic biblical story. The Ballad of Dahlia and Sonny at the P-town Barbecue was perhaps my favorite of these assignments.
No doubt, you’re familiar with Samson and Delilah, and you’ve seen the dramatic imagery portrayed by artists such as Van Dyck and Jan Steen. Each portrait captures the moment when Samson, a literal giant of a man, is brought low by the deceptive seduction of a woman. Also, in each picture, Delilah is exposed both literally and figuratively, with a bare breast. She regrets the deception she has practiced on her lover, and Samson is heartbroken and enraged at the same time.
In the age of #MeToo and increasing roles of women’s rights and leadership, it is time to retell the classic Samson and Delilah story, focusing on Delilah. The Old Testament story of Samson’s androcentric focus depicts women in the dichotomy of either virgin/wife/mother or whore/disreputable/foreign woman, and generally not to be trusted. The story was written by a man for a male audience and was instructive for how they wanted their women to behave. It was also instructive for the community not to intermarry with foreigners.
In 2020, it was time to flip the script! Imagine Samson as a washed-up quarterback who has become the Sheriff of a small town and Delilah as a wise entrepreneur.
The Ballad of Dahlia and Sonny at the P-town Barbeque
- P-town, a small town in rural Texas in 2020.
Soundtrack: Saint-Saen’s “Samson and Delilah,” remixed with Country lyrics by Dolly Parton.
- Dramatic music introduces the characters. Dolly sings their backstories.
- Dahlia’s family are indigenous to the land and have survived encroachment into their territory over 400 years.
- For 200 years, the P-town patriarchs who settled on indigenous land have enforced local laws as the sheriffs.
- Sonny’s family were grifters, gamblers, and car dealers with frequent run-ins with the law.
A beautiful, dark-haired, wise woman who owns the best bakery and coffee shop in P town. As an herbalist and beekeeper, she is also known for her herbal remedies and sweets made with her local honey. She is also brilliant, known for resolving local disputes fairly, but has never left town or furthered her formal education. She knows Sonny is a narcissist with a sweet tooth, and knows he has cheated her people in numerous ways. She is also angry with P Town’s patriarchs because they took her family’s land and never paid for it.
Sonny is Sam’s son, the promised child, an only child, and a very spoiled child. Sonny is the classic Texan golden boy. He wears pointed cowboy boots and a cowboy hat even though he lives in town and has never ridden a horse. True to his name, Sonny has long, blonde hair and sports a fake spray tan. He’s a notorious poor loser – especially when he lost the riddle at his wedding. Because the town fixates on old high school football heroes, he becomes Sheriff. (As a quarterback, he scored the winning touchdown in overtime during the homecoming game in 2005, and he literally brings this up in some way in every conversation he has.) He thinks he is God’s gift to humankind. He’s the unjust Sheriff and runs a CrossFit as a side hustle. He makes people join his gym to avoid getting tickets. He takes illegal steroids to keep up his appearance of strength and deals steroids on the side.
Sonny has had his eye on Dahlia since high school, and she has always graciously ignored him. He never gives up pursuing her and frequents her shop for her honeyed sweets. Dahlia listens to his touchdown story every day, and he buys her sweets. She is compassionate, understanding that he has had one too many contact concussions and is brain-damaged.
One day the 12 patriarchs of P-town come to Dahlia with a proposition. They are tired of Sonny running the show, and they are tired of hearing his football story. Surely, they say, Dahlia can learn Sonny’s secret for his strength, and then they can run him out of town. They each offer her $11,000 if she can learn his secret.
Dahlia knows she must be smart and offers Sonny special new sweets if he tells her the secret of his strength. For three days, he lies to her and then goes back to lifting weights in his CrossFit gym window. The next day she begs him for his secret, but she says she won’t listen to his touchdown story unless Sonny tells her his secret first. He can’t resist bragging about himself, and he can’t resist her new sweets. He lets her know about the illegal steroids.
Dahlia shares the news, the patriarchs pay up, and they have a reason to call the SBI, indict Sonny on drug charges, and throw him in jail.
While in jail, the overuse of steroids catches up with him, and he goes blind and impotent. The P-town patriarchs want to mock him and bring him to their barbeque where they are roasting the fatted calves to rejoice in leadership change. They are celebrating on an outdoor deck, looking down on the disgraced Sheriff. In a last fit of toxic rage, Sonny pushes against the deck, causing it to fall. He dies, as do all the patriarchs who were on the deck laughing at him.
Dahlia uses her $132,000 to go to law school and becomes a just judge. Later appointed to the Supreme Court, Dahlia outlaws football as a fundamental source of toxic masculinity, recognized as a detriment to civilized society that harms both players and the community. The elimination of a primary source of toxic masculinity transforms learning institutions, from high schools to universities.
Dahlia – Vanessa Hudgens
Sonny – Zac Efron
Patriarchs – A bunch of non-descript, bald, middle-aged, white guys
Producer: J. Chery Exum
Screenplay: Beth Maczka
Vanderbilt Divinity School
October 4, 2020
 Cheryl Exum, “Feminist Criticism, Whose Interests Are Being Served?,” Gale A. Yee, ed. Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies 59, no. 2 (2008): 720–722.