A boy finds himself in a strange new garden on that day when, suddenly, his sexuality starts to blossom. The assumptions he’s made about who he is — and the assumptions that others have made about him — can crack and crumble. Like a lot of growing up, it can hurt. So the man he flowers into — and the sort of earthly delights he indulges in — depends not just on what he wants to be, but on what he allows himself to be in the eyes of others.
Chicago writer and performer E. Patrick Johnson is here to uproot and inspect these pains and questions that shaped us into adults, and his solo show is a measured but lively exploration into the hidden legacy of his own life as a gay black man. Performed as a work of oral history, woven from many stories, Sweet Tea is sly, thorny, and often captivating.
As a professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University, Johnson has done his homework. His 2008 book of the same name collected testimony from 63 men, young and old, in the southern black gay community. This stage adaptation focuses on 13 of those voices, as well as Johnson himself, who intersperses his characters’ scenes with his own personal confessions, memories, and questions. We jump from state to state, over city lines, backgrounds, and ages (the characters, all men, range from their twenties to their nineties) but Johnson draws our attention to their common truths and similarities. Or, as he puts it: “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”
Quick on his feet as well as in narration, Johnson is blessed with a big set, designed by Klyph Stanford: an expansive brick porch and exterior of an old house, replete with rocking chair, hanging flower pots, a tire swing descended from weeping willow branches, and a rolling pushcart carrying with all the makings for a pitcher of sweet tea.
This tea is lovingly prepared, in careful stages, over the course of the show by one of Johnson’s more finely-etched characters, ninety-year-old Countess Vivian. As our sort of co-host for the evening, Vivian proves the most sweet-hearted of them all (one of the bigger laughs in the show comes when he empties an entire jar of sugar into his pitcher of tea).
Not every narrative strikes such soothing notes. Johnson’s characters vary widely in their relationship with homosexuality. Some take pride, some deny. Some are brimming with love for their families and communities, while others see their lives as an urgent exercise in self-defense from the world around them.
The character of Gerome, for one, ponders his role as a gay man at church, and concludes that hatred doesn’t lie in God, nor in the building, but in the people that come to the building. The story of Stephen, later on, grapples with similar issues, unsure how to live his life as something that people tell him God hates. Ultimately, Stephen decides he can move forward because, he decides, God is simply not a creator that makes mistakes.
Also particularly memorable is Chaz, or Chastity, who contemplates whether to get gender reassignment surgery. Chastity’s final decision raises interesting questions — Can getting an operation alter people’s negative opinions? How does an individual decide which parts of their body make them masculine or feminine?
Sweet Tea may hit on hard questions, but Johnson’s focus is on the healing as well. In a poignant personal scene, he explains how people of all walks of life “come out” to each other in many surprising ways throughout their lives, as did his own mother to support him at his commitment ceremony.
The goals of this project — to really touch and investigate the source of people’s scars even as we try to help in the healing — may seem contradictory, but Sweet Tea walks a compassionate, clear-minded line, leavening the upsetting stories with humor only to the degree that such smiles help reveal the soul at the center of these trials. And it’s all spun succinctly together by Johnson, who sings wonderfully as well throughout.
From beginning to end, the result is a well-plotted treasury of stories, admirable in the grace with which the periods of wild joy and charming silliness balance with moments of bitterness, betrayal, and sorrow. Perhaps not everyone prefers the same cup of tea, but when so generously offered, the only right thing to do is to accept, say thank you, and listen.
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South
Written and Performed by E. Patrick Johnson
Directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
Produced by Signature Theatre through special arrangement with Jane M. Saks
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission