REVIEW: Sweet Tea (About Face Theatre)

Satisfyingly Refreshing

 

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About Face Theatre presents
   
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South
   
Written and performed by E. Patrick Johnson
Directed by
Daniel Alexander Jones
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave. (map)
through May 29th  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I love personal essays. It’s my favorite literary genre. In fact, I love them so much that in addition to writing for this site, I run a personal essay reading series (Essay Fiesta). So I like to think I have a pretty good eye and ear for the telling and retelling of individual’s stories.

Actor and writer E. Patrick Johnson seems to like personal essays as well. His new one-man performance piece, Sweet Tea, is a dramatic account of the lives of gay Southern black men. The tales are all true. About six years ago, Johnson assumed the role of journalist and interviewed a number of subjects for his book that bares the same name as the play. A staged reading of some of these MSB_7710tales followed, which then eventually developed into the material’s current incarnation.

The result of all this labor is a compelling documentary that gives voice to an oft-ignored community, a community that represents a double minority in an area of the country where not being a heterosexual white man can jeopardize your safety.

Johnson pieces together a patchwork of unique characters, all of whom are bonded by their similar heritages and sexualities, but whom possess a varied array of viewpoints. There’s the elderly Countess Vivian, born 1912, who speaks while holding a staff and carries himself as a humble matriarch of Southern black gay culture. There’s the soft-spoken Freddie, who tells about how he’d slash bullies with a razor when he was picked on in school. And then there’s Johnson himself, who adds an extra layer of intimacy and vulnerability to the play by divulging his own stories about his life.

The play is divided up by topic. For each topic, which includes coming out, sex, love/relationships and HIV/AIDS, a handful of characters chime in about their own experiences. Some of these monologues induce laughter and joy, celebrating the diversity of humankind. Others are deeply depressing, reflecting the self-hate that has been instilled within many gay black men of the South.

In particular, the portion of the show devoted to religion and church is keenly revealing. Many of Johnson’s subjects have a complex, and often paradoxical, relationship with the church. One even goes so far to say that there are more gay men at service than there are at the clubs. But despite the fact that gays are the backbone of the institutional part of the faith, they are also preached against and reviled. This upsets one character, who views his homosexuality as a sin. He reasons that the church should welcome such sinners, clumping together murderers and gays in the same sentence, while failing to realize the extent of his self-hatred.

Johnson effortlessly transitions from one character to the next, assuming more than a dozen affectations. Sometimes the character will erupt out of nowhere, while at other times Johnson himself will summon the subject. His tools are his voice and his physicality, which he manipulates throughout the show. A screen abutting the stage flashes the name of the speaker, which helps the audience identify which character Johnson has just morphed into.

   
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The only criticism I have for Johnson’s performance is his stumbling. Understandably there’s a lot of material to cover in this piece, so line flubs are forgivable to an extent. But there were several times where the words became jumbled, and for Johnson to recover, he had to briefly break character.

Daniel Alexander Jones’ direction is decent, though superfluous at times. Often Johnson will be fumbling with a jar or stringing a strand of beads onto a tree for no apparent reason. Perhaps it’s poetic, but it’s meaning is lost on me. It’s not so much of a distraction as it is a missed opportunity. I would have rather seen action that falls in line more directly with the stories, whether acting out anecdotes or assuming the posture each character possessed while being interviewed by Johnson.

The idea of doing a documentary as a play is an intriguing one, and, overall, it works. However, I wonder whether the staged reading of these same interviews would not have been just as, if not more, compelling. To the piece’s credit, Johnson’s performance does breath life into these words, which certainly makes for a vibrant performance and, as the personal essay genre necessitates, he successfully conveys the truth of his subject’s lives in a way that is honest, non-judgmental and entertaining.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Extra Credit:

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REVIEW: Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life (Second City etc)

Friggin’ hilarious

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The Second City e.t.c. presents
  
The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life
  
Directed by Bill Bungeroth
Musical direction by
Jesse Case
The Second City e.t.c., Piper’s Alley, 1608 N. Wells (map)
Open run  |  Tickets: $22–$27 |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Second City e.t.c.’s new revue, The Absolute Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life, may not exactly live up to its boastful title, but it’s probably among the funniest times you can have for the price.

Photo_005_Melewski_Anthony_Sohn Like all such sketch-comedy shows, this one has its upsides and downsides, but when it works, it really clicks, and it works more often than not.

Much more musical than many Second City shows, Friggin’ offers some especially funny songs, delivered by a terrific cast who knows how to use their voices, backed by capable music director Jesse Case.

Beginning with a musical tribute to the "Good Old Days," the running joke of the revue, is a look back to the supposedly better days of the past — which seem to be the late 1990s, though few actual historical events are mentioned beyond general references to full employment, budget surpluses and no wars. That gives them ample scope to skewer the present, however. Christina Anthony, Beth Melewski and Mary Sohn, clad in stretch pants showing ample curves, take on the country’s idiotic "war on obesity" with a defiant song and dance on the joys of being "Rubenesque" that had nearly every woman in the audience cheering. Tom Flanigan is sidesplitting as a scat singer crooning to a group of dull-witted Tea Partiers. And Tim Baltz dramatically captures the all-encompassing and irrational rage of Obama haters in an office sketch.

Very little effort has gone into making this comedy politically balanced — the few digs at Dems are far outweighed by the arrows aimed at the increasingly easy targets of the right wing. I’m not sure this show would play so well in outside a liberal stronghold, but the Chicago audience ate it up. (Has any previous sitting administration ever been so lightly treated by comedians because their opponents made so much more compelling butts?)

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A few skits don’t deliver, such as one in which Flanigan and Anthony play a race-reversed doctor and nurse — beyond the initial surprise when you realize the white guy is playing a black man, there’s not much there.

The evening culminates with an overlong skit in which Brendan Jennings, wonderfully expressive throughout, time travels to his high-school prom with an audience volunteer. Jennings carries it off impressively, but the jokes don’t match the premise of a nerd who regrets having skipped the dance in the first place, and I imagine much depends on how well the volunteer plays up.

Overall, though, Director Bill Bungeroth has given us a fast-paced and hilarious look at those times that, for many of us, have been the worst of our lives.

     
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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Written and performed by Christina Anthony, Tim Baltz, Tom Flanigan, Brendan Jennings, Beth Melewski and Mary Sohn