REVIEW: Sweet Tea (About Face Theatre)

Satisfyingly Refreshing

 

MSB_7862

  
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:

SWEET-TEA-web

       
       

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