Sweet Tea, a new production of E. Patrick Johnson’s one-man performance of the stories and lives of Black gay men in the South, began its theatrical run May 7 at the Viaduct Theatre. The piece is based on Johnson’s book of the same name, a compendium of interviews with 63 subjects. The May 8 performance was preceded by a panel discussion involving several of the men. Windy City Times spoke with three of them separately by phone the day before the initial performance.
Each of them emphasized how honored they felt about being included first in the book and then in the new production. Their accounts of how they came to be where they are as Black gay men who either still live in the South or lived there for significant parts of their lives differed somewhat, as did their sense of the importance of both the book and the performances.
Duncan Teague, who speaks in a soft-spoken but very measured and authoritative way, was “born sometime in the early ’60s,” is a member of the Black gay spoken-word group, ADODI Muse, and an AIDS activist based in Atlanta, Ga. A performer like Johnson, he was excited about the book project because, as he put it, “We don’t have enough of our histories recorded.” Teague had not expected that the project would go beyond the printed word, so when he got a call from Johnson outlining his plans to take it to the stage, he was intrigued. He has since seen Sweet Tea as both a reading and as a performance, was “awestruck to hear [my] voice coming out of someone else’s body. Patrick didn’t just get my voice, he got me.” Laughing, he continued, “There was a little professional jealousy there. But really, it was so honoring, to know that what I said was worth putting on stage, that he gave it that much energy and time.” Speaking of the transition from Johnson’s original reading to a theatrical production, Teague said, “I’m overjoyed that what was a man on a stool becomes the full production.”
“C.C.” (who did not use his full name for the interview) was born in Greenville, Miss., in 1961 and now teaches dance at a university in Alabama. “C.C.” praised Johnson’s work as “quite brilliant—it shows why people like Patrick should continue to push the envelope.” He went on to explain that at the time of the interviews, in 2004, the county was “not pleasant” and that “people were very vocal about what they thought about homosexuality, even in liberal places.” He saw Sweet Tea as indicative of the ways the conversation around identity in the US, which he regards as an old and unproductive one, could be re-imagined: “[Sweet Tea] allows someone to see us as whole people. I discovered at 13 that the least of my problems was about being Black and gay. [Life is] about being health and whole, finding how you get to these places where you get your wholeness and power not through race.”
The South is also perceived in stereotypes about repression, especially in terms of homosexuality but “C.C.” said that it is “quite the opposite. It’s about owning who you are no matter who you are. Homosexuality is always there, and people will say, “that’s just who they are.” In a strange way, it allows you to be more so yourself than in Northern places where people get to act out their characters in some sort of dive. Eccentricity always a part of the make-up of the South.”
But if the South is about “owning who you are,” why would he only use his initials? The question provoked a loud peal of laughter and then the words, “That’s part of the drama as a Southerner; that’s part of the drama, the tea, honey! [As Johnson explains in his book, “tea” is also another word for gossip.] You don’t want to spill the tea, you want to keep the tea!”
At 74, Harold Mays, Jr., born in St. Louis, Mo., speaks with the energy and zest for life stereotypically ascribed only to people decades younger. He was excited to be included in the book, and was even more honored to have his story be picked as part of the theatrical piece. “I felt like Sidney Poitier,” he chuckled, adding that, “Of course, it had nothing to do with me, it’s all [Patrick’s] interpretation.” Mays felt that while Sweet Tea was important in all its forms, the play would take it to new places: “With the book, no matter how widespread and well-publicized it might be, it may not be read by many people. This opens it to more people.”
Mays also spoke of the importance of letting people know how much had changed through the narratives in Sweet Tea, speaking of a time when “The life of gay males usually existed in circles and [you] had to be closeted.” But he also made it clear that if changes in societal perception had come about for him, it had come about in large part because he had always held to his mother’s advice: “No matter what you do, you respect yourself and your family name and honor.”
For this reason, he felt, he had been with a partner, also named Harold and a retired university professor, for 45 years, and the two were loved and respected by family, friends and community: “I have a small family, and when they call, they ask about him before they ask about me.” The two men live in Washington, D.C., and were recently, according to Mays, part of a D.C. Metro ad campaign that featured a range of different users, including a mother with a child, a person in a wheelchair—and the two Harolds carrying their plants home on the train. Mays added, “I don’t feel old; I feel a part of life today. We have national leaders who see people for who they are and not for their sexual orientation. I feel very, very whole.”