Saints, Villains, and Real Men | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Saints, Villains, and Real Men

Two plays, The Good Negro and Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, explore the myths and realities of black life in the south.

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In his solo show, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, writer/performer E. Patrick Johnson also trains his focus on the trees. But in his case the choice pays off handsomely. While Wilson eventually runs up against well-documented history, Johnson traffics in the vagaries of reminiscence.

Of the show's titular beverage Johnson says, "There are as many recipes as there are southerners." His mother's calls for ten Lipton teabags and a tooth-punishing two-and-a-half cups of sugar. Back home in Arkansas, my mom uses a half to three-quarters of a cup—and always, always Luzianne teabags, because, as the packaging assures you, it's "specially blended for iced tea." And as it goes with sweet tea recipes, so it goes with the stories of the 13 men Johnson has collected and brings to life during the evening.

The oldest of the men was born in 1912, the youngest in 1982, and there are representatives from almost every decade in between. They come from all over the south—rural spots in Mississippi and North Carolina and metropolises like New Orleans and Atlanta. Johnson groups their narratives into categories announced with supertitles ("Coming Out," "Sex," "Love/Relationships," and so on) and weaves in his own recollections of growing up black and gay in Hickory, North Carolina. Johnson evokes each man's distinctive personality and, especially, his peculiar way of putting things. The oldest, a nonagenarian called Countess Vivian, says of discovering that he liked men, "I don't know what caused it, it just come right on, you know?" On the subject of AIDS, a dandyish Atlantan asks, "Can you imagine the Broadway shows we would have had if we hadn't had AIDS? Shows I would have been star of?"

Nowhere is the multiplicity of experience more evident than in Sweet Tea's hands-down highlight, a section called "Church Sissies," in which the men describe their fraught relationships with the black church. One argues for the church as a refuge for "educated, sensitive, articulate, bright young men—and guess who that just described." Another talks himself dizzy trying to justify its homophobia. Still another icily rejects the institution altogether, saying, "If you don't like my packaging but desire my gifts, you shall be granted neither."

Not all of Sweet Tea has as much bite and nuance as "Church Sissies", but Johnson never sentimentalizes or overplays his subjects—despite the cornpone augured by Grant Sabin's downhome, tree-and-front-porch set and director Daniel Alexander Jones's heavy reliance on Mason jars (Johnson makes tea in one, pulls ribbons out of another, and addresses still another as if it were Yorick's skull). Johnson's writing and performance avoid cliches and tricks, succeeding on the merits of a good ear, a gift for mimicry, and empathy to spare.   

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