*Purchase the book at Women and Children First
About Face Theatre continues to break fresh queer ground with its latest play Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. It’s about time we have some colorful stage plays on this side of the city! Adapted from his book of the same name, author E. Patrick Johnson is a respite from the usual entertainment-only, Mardi Gras box that this part of the country gets when it comes to work about southern culture. Scribe and star of Sweet Tea, Johnson is a queer scholar living and working in Chicago. His play, running through May 29th at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western and directed by Daniel Alexander Jones, is a reflection on his life growing up in the South and how the complex culture has shaped his life up north. TPR was able to have an e-chat with this charming smarty pants, and his answers to my questions were SO inspiring. Tickets to the play here.
Sweet Tea tackles the topic of southern black culture and homosexuality. What kinds of things have you seen/experienced that inspired you to make this play?
The question should be more about what I haven’t seen, actually. And that is, I haven’t seen black gay southern life depicted. There have been a couple of films that have had a black gay southern character, but there has not been a film, play, or even a book, that captured the community of black gay men in the South. So, my book, Sweet Tea, and now the play is about trying to bring these stories to the fore and to give the world a glimpse into this vibrant community of black gay men in the South.
People from different regions prefer different words to describe their sexuality. I’ve found that the word “queer” is rejected by people who know it to be a derogatory term, regardless of its reclaimed status. Your play’s title also reclaims the word “Sweet,” used to refer to gay men in the south. Can you talk about these words, which you identify with and why specificity in language is important?
It’s interesting because my grandmother used the word “queer” all the time, but pronounced it “quare” (like the word “square”), but she used it to comment on someone or something that she felt was strange or odd. I then used her pronunciation of the word to write an article about queer theory to critique its myopic focus on white gay men and only issues of sexuality rather than sexuality in relation to race and class. So, I reappropriated the term “queer” from my grandmother who, incidentally, was homophobic, to critique queer theory. All that to say that I think words have meanings, but their meanings change in various contexts and according to people’s particular set of politics. I do believe that in some instances reclaiming words that were once derogatory can be empowering. “Sweet” is one of them because unlike a word like “Faggot,” which has a particular sting to it, “sweet” has so many wonderful connotations that register alongside the negative ones. But more importantly, when combined with the term, “tea,” which means “gossip” in black gay vernacular, the meaning changes completely. The South in particular is the land of euphemisms and indirection–nothing is said in a direct way, especially about subjects that are taboo. You really have to be a part of the culture to catch everything that a person is saying; otherwise, you will miss something.
The church and its culture are highly influential in the United States, both in law making and interpersonal relationships. Can you describe how the church has shaped your life, or placed limitations on your life-experience? Conversely, how has it allowed you to experience things that others might not?
I often tell people that I started going to church in mother’s womb–and that would not be hyperbole. The church was a part of every aspect of my life growing up in western North Carolina. It was where I made my first friends; where I had my first kiss; where I learned how to paint; where I was encouraged to develop my singing; it infiltrated every facet of my life until I left for college. And even then, I continued to go to a local church in the town where my university was and I also joined the gospel choir at college. It wasn’t just about worshiping God, though that was a big part of it; it was about this communal life that was always teetering between the sacred and the secular. Rather than limitations, I believe the church actually catapulted me into actualizing all that I am today, especially since we children were rewarded for doing well in school, taught to be the very best at whatever we did, and were encouraged and nurtured as young artists and citizens.
As I got older, however, I had to step back from some of the not-so-pleasant things about the church. Although my pastor never preached a homophobic sermon when I was a child (at least that I can remember), there were plenty of such sermons in other churches and I just decided not to put myself through that. There are still many aspects of the church that I miss, however. Nonetheless, I choose to worship in my own way without all of the baggage that comes with belonging to “a” church.
You’ve spoken about gender expression, and how varied it can be/should be. Can you speak to anything specific about African-American culture that you think makes it particularly open to/able to express gender and sexuality in ways different that other cultures?
Just based on the interviews I conducted with some of the men in my book, it seems to me that some of the most flamboyant and gender non-conforming men were the most accepted in their communities. One example is Chaz/Chastity, a pre-operative MTF transgendered person in my hometown who, at the time of the interview, lived as a man on Sunday to sing in the choir and as a female the rest of the week and worked as a hairdresser. Everyone in my hometown accepted Chaz/Chastity without much comment at all. So, there’s something to be said about small black communities in particular, where the focus is more on survival and keeping the community together than on ostracizing folks for their “eccentricity,” which some feel gayness is.
Your play depicts characters that span a few generations. How has identifying as gay changed over time in the south? What do you think has influenced these changes?
In the African American community the term “gay” has only become a part of the parlance I’d say in the last 40 years. Before then, I think “sissy” or other euphemisms like “that way” or “funny” were most common. In the South there are still black communities that don’t use the term “gay,” but still rely on the euphemisms because, as I said before, indirection and circumvention are a part of southern culture. “Gay” as a term is used more now because of how much it’s used in popular culture and in our everyday life. Its use now has much to do with current politics, especially gay marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Chicago has been your home for years now. What is still exciting to you about the Windy City, and how does it help shape your work?
I think of Chicago as “up South,” because there are so many southern transplants here like myself. Because I live on the South Side of Chicago in particular I feel like I’m living in an extension of the South because the community here is so close and the people are so warm and friendly like those in the South. Chicago has also been a great place for me to create performance because the arts community here is so vibrant. With over 200 theaters here and being at a university like Northwestern that supports the arts and having the opportunity to develop SWEET TEA as a fellow at the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in Arts and Media at Columbia College, has bolstered my career in ways unimaginable. I can’t think of a better place to live or create art than in Chicago. It is my South.