Find Us

Black and gay in the Deep South

Jordan Wright
September 29, 2011
Special to The Alexandria Times

Signature Theatre kicks off its new seasons series, “Sex, Drama and Rock n’ Roll,” with “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.”  In this 90-minute non-stop monologue, dramatist, actor, writer and Northwestern University professor E. Patrick Johnson offers a primer on gay black men growing up in the South. It’s a powerful, unadulterated expression of pain, humor and pathos.
Johnson, an archivist, takes us to his hometown of Hickory, N.C., the “furniture capital of the world,” and into the dark past of the Deep South, interviewing more than 70 black gay men, ages 19 to 93, in a quest to explore his roots and challenge the definition of the stereotypical gay black male.

The play has evolved from his book of the same name, penned after a conversation in 1995 at a black HIV / AIDS gathering in Washington, DC, where he heard the voices of older black men.

As a child Johnson suffered his share of bullying, with playmates calling him “a mean little sissy.”  Growing up in a small town divided by railroad tracks — blacks on the south side, whites to the north — he became the first African American from his town to earn a Ph.D.

“It just came on,” Johnson says of his homosexuality.  One day his mother prompts him to explain it. He asks her, “Was there ever a time when you were attracted to another woman? Well, neither was I.”

Acting out his stories in vignettes, Johnson channels 14 characters with vastly different experiences, from hairdressers and transgenders to drag queens and preachers on the down low.  He is a supreme mimic and muscular actor who minces, gavottes and genuflects to tell a story.

In a scene revealing the hypocrisy of the church, he becomes Jerome, a minister with questionable sexuality.  Jerome doesn’t have a wife because, as he says, “I believe in the Bible.”

Adding his experiences to the mix, Johnson testifies to the “sway that lulls church babies into a gospel coma.” There were a lot of knowing “A-mens!” from the I’m-hip-to-that audience.

Scenic designer Kylph Sanford evocatively sets the piece on a southern front porch, adding a rocking chair, tree stump, trellises, wispy Spanish moss and an old tire swing that Johnson uses to great effect. It opens with Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” playing gently in the background, and a teacart with a pitcher of iced sweet tea becomes a stunning metaphor for the conflicting social traditions of the genteel South. Old black spirituals, disco music from the “Hotlanta” gay scene of the ’70s, soul music from the ’60s and gospel tunes from the hallelujah chorus tie the fast-paced cameos together.

Johnson is raw, honest and candid about himself and his subject. “Sweet Tea” is a high-voltage, frank sex talk — a fiery social commentary by a skilled mimic and performer who shares the struggles, triumphs and vulnerabilities of a rarely so deeply explored minority.

At Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., in Arlington through October 9. For tickets and information, visit or call 703 820-9771.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.