For Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, writer and performer E. Patrick Johnson adapted oral histories that he conducted with sixty-three men, ages 19-93, from fifteen southern states (University of North Carolina Press published Sweet Tea, the book, in 2008). Early iterations toured US colleges and universities; in these performances, Johnson peppered a handful of stories that he performed from a script placed on a music stand with extemporaneous commentary, with nothing more than a cup of tea beside him. The premiere of the full-length production of Sweet Tea featured the stories of thirteen men, as well as Johnson's own. Fully rendered characterizations, along with elaborate sets and lights, represented the South's indelible influence on the lives of black gay men born and raised in that place/space. Sweet Tea made a strong case for performance ethnography as a method for expanding US historical memory.
Co-produced by the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender, which is committed to the arts as modes of research and advocacy, and About Face Theatre, acclaimed for its fifteen-year history of developing theatre about sexual and gender identity, Sweet Tea performed the politics of its producers and the critical stance of performance studies through explicit contextualization of the production as public scholarship and an episteme. On opening night, the presence of some of the men represented in Sweet Tea as honored audience members firmly positioned the performance as part of an ongoing exchange.
A solo performance comprised of monologues structured thematically, Sweet Tea juxtaposed the men's experiences of childhood, sex, coming out, religion, HIV/AIDS, and love. The mingling of monologues in each section, framed by a title slide, suggested a reconceptualization of genealogy, symbolized by the massive magnolia tree set center stage. The monologues expressed a shared black, gay southern idiom that nevertheless varied strikingly in terms of class, generation, and self-reflexivity. At the same time, this dramaturgical structure laid bare the historical tensions of mutuality and oppression that characterize the South.
Even more, Sweet Tea's aesthetics materialized Johnson's understanding of ethnography's strengths as an embodied co-performance between interviewer and interviewee. Audience interaction and direct address emphasized the process of co-creation by performer and theatre audience in the telling of and listening to stories, while the ambient design conveyed the sense of culture as situated. Yet Sweet Tea's most pronounced manifestation of the co-performer conception, perhaps paradoxically, was as a solo performance. Johnson's portrayals of the men shifted by way of idiosyncratic postures and vocal qualities, even as he was costumed in his near-signature attire of dress pants and a long-sleeved burgundy shirt. Thus despite nuanced characterizations of each man, Johnson sustained his presence as intermediary between audience and subject/character.
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The scenography was inextricable from Sweet Tea as sensate co-performance. Grant Sabin's realistic scenery, lighted by Kathy Perkins, represented the South as equally a unique sensorium, a set of practices, and an idea. Sabin optimized the intimacy of the Viaduct Theatre's thrust stage, which served to aggrandize the life-size magnolia. The tree's branches draped out over the audience, and glass jars of myriad colors and shapes hung from its canopy. A small porch was nestled behind the tree, upstage center. At the show's opening, the warm prismatic glow of sunset suggested that now was the time to gather, to listen to stories, or, in southern parlance, to "pour tea." And indeed, Johnson entered through the porch's wooden screen door to receive audience members to this home; as he sang a spiritual...