September 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Strongly brewed ‘Tea’

‘Sweet Tea’
Through Oct. 9
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington

E. Patrick Johnson in ‘Sweet Tea,’ a pastiche-based performance piece on stage now at Signature. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Signature)

As a chubby little gay boy growing up in Hickory, N.C., E. Patrick Johnson staved off bullies by making them laugh. His specialty was imitations. The moment would-be tormentors planned to attack, Johnson typically averted imminent pain by breaking into an uncanny impersonation of a less-than-loved teacher.

Today Johnson, a performance artist and professor of performance studies and African-American studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, is neither class clown nor chubby, but mimicry remains an integral part of his skill set. In his one-person performance piece “Sweet Tea” — now in production at Signature Theatre — Johnson portrays himself as well as a dozen other gay black characters drawn from real life interview subjects. With names like Countess Vivian, Chaz/Chastity and D.C., the men Johnson brings to life are a part of the South that sometimes goes unnoticed.

Amiable and soft spoken offstage, Johnson says, “I can assure theatergoers that they haven’t seen this play before — these kind of gay black experiences have never been shared before in a theater. LGBT audiences in particular will connect with these men’s stories in ways that may even surprise themselves.”

Johnson’s desire to record black gay men’s stories was sparked on a visit to Washington back in 1995. “I was at a cookout for Us Helping US, and I became engrossed with a group of African-American gay men who were sitting around a table sharing experiences about growing up in the day in the South. Then and there, I vowed that when I had the time and the resources to collect these stories I would. I feel it’s important to create an archive of these never-before-documented lives.”

Eventually, Johnson followed through: In 2004, he took a sabbatical from Northwestern and began collecting narratives from 77 African-American gay men ages 19 to 92 from all the southern states as well as Oklahoma and Missouri (both of which had been slave states). In 2008, he published an oral-history anthology titled “Sweet Tea:  Black Gay Men of the South.”

It was about a year into the project when Johnson realized that in addition to making a book, the interviews would also make a great performance. The material is rich and covers a wide range of topics: coming out, love and relationships, HIV/AIDS, bullying (Freddie recounts carrying a razor blade for protection), religion, mama drama, and of course sex (another character had sex with the entire football team in high school). Full of humor and poignancy, the tales are ultimately universal.

“In the past,” says Johnson, 44, “I’ve done staged readings of collected monologues in which I’d sit on a stool giving vocal impressions of different characters. But with ‘Sweet Tea’ it’s different — it’s a play and I fully embody the characters.”

“From the start, I intuitively knew that I was part of the ‘Sweet Tea’ story but it took me a while to understand that it’s my story too. While we were workshopping the play in Chicago, the show’s producer Jane Saks and others involved in the project agreed that I needed to interject my own story into the work. As it turned out, my own experiences are a through line: I’m in search of something and the other men help me to find it.”

Johnson has enjoyed electrifying rapport with audiences. He remembers a specific sold out performance of “Pouring Tea” (an earlier performance piece also comprised of gay black men’s stories) at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The crowd was mostly black and gay, and they were identifying with the show’s coming out stories, the church stories. The energy was unreal. We were levitating.”

His audiences at Signature will most likely be drawn primarily from a different demographic. Does that worry Johnson?

“I’ve been schooled about Signature’s blue-haired crowd, but I learned long ago never to make assumptions about audiences. I remember performing at the main library in downtown Mobile, Alabama, for a mostly white, straight crowd. During the post-show Q&A session, a minister thanked me for bringing the show to town. He approved of open talk about sexuality. After all, he said, God was there for the first wet vagina and the first erection. A hush fell over the room, and after what felt like an endless silence, I offered up an ‘Amen!’ It seemed right.”


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