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Theatre Tue Apr 13 2010

Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South

Historically, African-Americans have always held close ties to church and religion; however, for African-Americans who are gay, especially in the Bible Belt, maintaining those ties is often met with many challenges.

For E. Patrick Johnson, professor at Northwestern University's Department of Performance Studies and author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, gay black men are a unique, vibrant community with stories that prove that despite our differences, we are all more alike than we think.

In Sweet Tea, coming to Chicago later this month, Johnson is the lone star in this book adaptation directed by Daniel Alexander Jones and produced by Columbia College's Jane Saks, Executive Director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media and About Face Theatre.

Here, the three of them discuss Sweet Tea and its impact on gender, society and culture.

Sweet Tea--that's an especially southern reference--is that why you came up with that title?

Johnson: I'm a southerner who grew up on sweet iced tea, which is a staple drink of the South. Also, in the South, the word "sweet" is a derogatory term for gay people, and in the black, gay community, "tea" is slang for 'gossip'. So Sweet Tea is a riff off all those things.

Sweet Tea focuses specifically on black gay men from the South. What distinguishes them from black gay men who hail from other parts of the country?

Johnson: One thing that is different is their relationship to family and church. The South has the reputation of being very repressive and religious; that is true, however, the paradox of that is this religiosity and repressiveness allows for the expression of homosexuality in very interesting and nuanced ways. Also, I think black gay men in other parts of the country, especially in Northeast and the West, don't have that same kind of relationship with religion. Whatever the case is, they all came through the church in some way, and they are very clear about how the church plays a role in their lives.

Saks: Well look at Chicago--the southern migration of blacks has had a huge influence on this city. Raised here in Chicago, my parents insisted I learn the whole city; in doing so, I understood what makes up a city like this. Although Sweet Tea is about a secured geography, it has a huge impact on Chicago because that southern migration has influenced the kind of city Chicago is.

Jones: Sweet Tea is interesting because it is so specifically about what it means to be southern. In terms of community, some things about the men's lives are indisputably Southern and are true about black southern communities; however, there are other experiences they have because they are gay black men who are isolated or ostracized in those otherwise friendly communities. Part of what I love about what Patrick does as a thinker is that he is not afraid to say "Let me look at all of the details of what this southern world is," and the fact that each of the men in the book are all different; you can't say any two of them are the same, even though they share "southernisms" like religion, family, and food in common.

Speaking of religion, homosexuality and the black church has always been the "elephant in the room"--are things different now?

Johnson: One of the things I think has happened is that for years, the Republican Party has been funneling a lot of money to black churches, and those churches have accepted that money with open arms. At the time, there was nothing at stake, but the Republicans knew at some point, they'd be able to cash in on that money--and I think that moment came around the issue of gay marriage. When gay marriage became an issue, I was disappointed in how vocal black ministers particularly were against gay marriage or homosexuality in general. Black gays and lesbians have always been part of the church, and while it might have been a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, outside of the church, there weren't these public announcements or homophobic rhetoric that existed. Now, the veil has been removed in terms of it being a topic of discussion, so in some ways, this whole public discourse around gay marriage and black church has made the church less safe for black gays and lesbians.

There is still a little way to go, then.
Johnson: I think so, but if there is anything positive that has happened out of all this anti-gay rhetoric is that at least we are talking about it.

Sweet Tea will be performed at Columbia College, an institution known for being a strong proponent of different cultural backgrounds, advocacy of sexual and gender issues and the whole spectrum of diversity--why is this important?

Saks: A college like Columbia, the largest media and arts college in the country, really supports innovative ideas and risk taking, and it supports the original, creative voice. When I was first being interviewed for the executive director position of The Institute, I wanted to start a fellowship program that supported creative and innovative thinking. Patrick is a fellow and that's where this project came from. Through my relationship with him and our work together, I talked to him about becoming a fellow and really looking at our scholarly work and evolving it into a full performance. Columbia is a perfect place for that kind of innovative work that can really push boundaries.

How did you collaborate with Johnson with Sweet Tea?

Jones: I have been aware of Patrick's work as a writer and academic for many years and have always been interested in his perspective on culture, politics and identity. I had the opportunity to meet him last year, which was right around the time he was looking for someone to direct Sweet Tea. I had turned away from directing a lot and had been doing a lot more of my own writing and performances, but I said I'd run back to direct if I had a chance to work with him because I think his work is so great! He and Jane Saks at The Institute were so generous and enthusiastic about the idea of me coming on board the project and that's how it all happened.

So you were already familiar with Johnson's work. For the adaptation of Sweet Tea, why do you feel this story needed to be told?

Jones: I got to see him perform live, embodied readings of it and it gave me such a real sense of how gifted he is as a performer in creating the voices and the presence of the men themselves. Even though he was reading from a piece of paper, it felt like he was changing into different people in front of me. That let me know he had real power as a storyteller and as a theatrical performer. I then immediately started to think about ways to frame that and also get him off the seat and get him moving in the space, just to make it more theatrical and to see what his whole body as he morphed into each character.

Saks: I wanted to push him to think about how his work could really affect a larger population and really be part of a conversation that goes beyond the scholarship. This piece is so important because I often say, "How do you change the canon?" Well, you add to it. When voices and experiences are added to the canon, it no longer just represents a small population. And working with Patrick for so many years and with Daniel directing, collaboratively, they are leadership creative voices via their own work by mixing visions and coming up with something that will push conversations via a creative and poetic experience.

So art plays a major role in gender issues? How important is that relationship in today's society?

Saks: I strongly believe art is about an equitable participation that affords us an opportunity to participate in a really democratic way. When we talk bout gender, we mean gender, gender identity, sexuality, and sexual identity, and how the world responds to us and how we respond to the world. But you can't really talk about gender without also talking about race, access, and class. It's about how we participate in representing the diversity of our global society; to leave anyone out means you're not really constructing a narrative that reflects who we are in all our differences and our similarities.

Sweet Tea will be in Chicago later this month--what will audience members see?

Johnson: They'll see that the South and black gay men are not monolithic. Also, there are so many different perspectives, experiences and voices that the play will allow to emerge: There will be different age groups--all the way from someone who is currently 97 years old and then someone who at the time was 21. The audience will see this 70-year span of black gay southern history.

What would you like the audience to take away from the performance?

Johnson: What I want people to come away with--if nothing else--is the fact that these are human stories that speak to us. Even if we aren't black, gay, or southern, in some ways, all of these stories affect us or we can relate to them in some sort of way, whether it's via family, reconciling our identities, etc. These are universal things that are not just relegated to black gay men. Some straight people are afraid of gay people because they don't understand gayness. They think it's so far from who they are; however, if they can tap into the similarities, that'll open the door and make them say, "I get it."

Jones: I feel that Patrick asks us to be willing to say, "This is specific--it is not the same for everybody," and "We need to honor people's different experiences." People think things aren't interesting if they can't relate to them, but Patrick asks, "Your life is different than mine, but how can we learn from each other? How can you share with me what your journey has been and vice versa?"

Saks: I'm working hard at having the audience have an impact on what their experience is and I'm developing programs and conversations with people from Chicago and beyond, to talk about not only how relevant Patrick's story is, but also what kind of experience is it to enter into the narrative and the evolution of these individuals, and their relationship between each other and the things they articulate and identify in their lives. I think the audience is going to see their relationship to the actual narrative of the whole Sweet Tea piece; also, they'll be able to understand things that maybe they haven't experienced--not just the literary narrative, but the life and visual narrative, as well. What this piece will also do is help create a context and experience for people to go deep inside themselves and understand relationships in an expansive way.

Final thoughts?

Saks: In our society, certain conversations are shaped in very particular ways; when you talk about gender, gender identity and race, those conversations are socialized to be constructed and refined in certain ways. That's part of what Sweet Tea will do. It's also full of humor, joy, poetry and history, because those are really how we come together as human beings.

Jones: This is going to be a wonderful show; Patrick is going to knock the socks off Chicago!

Sweet Tea will be playing Thursdays through Sundays, April 29 through May 29 at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave; tickets are $12.50-$25; Thursday-Saturday shows are at 7:30pm; Sundays, 3pm. For more information, call 312-369-8829 or 773-296-6024.

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UrbanTravelGirl / April 14, 2010 10:54 PM

LaShawn, "Sweet Tea" sounds fascinating! I will HAVE to check it out when it gets to Columbia. Thanks for such a thoughtful exploration of the subject, one most of us rarely think about.


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