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Sweet Tea: A Performance in the Words of Black, Gay Men of the South

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October 16, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- How do gay black men survive life in Dublin, Ga., Jasper, Texas, Hickory, N.C. and other places big and small in America's South? The answers to this and other questions asked of 70 gay, African American men living in the South by a Northwestern University professor are the basis of “Sweet Tea,” a dramatic reading Saturday, Oct. 21. Free and open to the public, “Sweet Tea” will be performed at 8 p.m. in the Wallis Theatre in Northwestern's Theatre and Interpretation Center, 1949 Campus Drive, Evanston campus.

A riff on the South's favorite beverage, its use of “tea” as a word for gossip and on pejorative terms for gays (“he's got a little sugar in his blood”), “Sweet Tea” is based on a book about gay black life in the South. The book by E. Patrick Johnson, also titled “Sweet Tea,” will be published by University of North Carolina Press. Johnson's dramatic reading will be the final event of a free, one-day “Black Performance Studies” symposium featuring speakers on topics from African theatre to African American feminism.

“Black queer life in the South has gone largely undocumented,” says Johnson, the Northwestern associate professor and chair of performance studies who conducted his face-to-face interviews between August 2004 and September 2005. “Histories of gay life have focused on urban areas on the east and west coasts, perhaps because the South is perceived as an inhospitable place for gays generally,” he says. “Sweet Tea” will be the first book-length study to look specifically at gay black men living south of the Mason-Dixon line and is, in part, Johnson's attempt to debunk that perception.

“Black queers are an important piece of the patchwork quilt that is the diverse and perverse social fabric of Southern living,” says Johnson, a self-identified “Southern expatriate” raised in North Carolina's western foothills. The soft-spoken, gracious professor found that many of his interview subjects attended church, where their gay status was a kind of “open secret.” He found the black church “a sometimes contradictory place.” On the one hand it can be actively gay bashi from the pulpit and on the other affirm gay men's talent in the choir and provide a sense of community and belonging.

Johnson's interview subjects range in age from 19 to 94 and represent at least one gay black man from every former slave-holding state. From corporate executive to drag queen, minister to hairdresser and architect to nurse, they inhabit large cities and small towns and are sometimes and sometimes not openly gay. “It's difficult not to romanticize these brave men. They live their lives, from my now urban perspective, in less than ideal situations,” he says.

Their commitment to the South and to rural communities particularly at once complicates and simplifies their lives. “The public face of gay life -- the talk about visibility and gay rights and what it means to be gay -- is lived out in big cities. Yet in an ironic way being part of a smaller town community often guarantees black gay men a kind of safety, familiarity and comfort that living in Chicago, New York or San Francisco cannot.”

The Black Performance Studies Symposium is sponsored by Northwestern's departments of performance studies, African American studies, and theatre. For further information about the 8 p.m. performance of “Sweet Tea” in the Wallis Theatre of the Theatre and Interpretation Center or about the symposium, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Northwestern Room of Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive, call the performance studies department at (847) 491-3171. For a complete schedule of the symposium, visit the performance studies department Web site at http://www.communication.northwestern.edu/performancestudies/news/blackperformance/.