Do You Like "Sweet Tea"?
Why would anyone choose to live in a generally conservative part of the country that's often racist and even more often hostile to LGBTs?
From 2004 to 2006, Northwestern University professor of African American Studies (and Hickory, North Carolina native) E. Patrick Johnson asked that question. He interviewed over seventy black gay men who were born - and continue to live - in the South. Ultimately, he found that despite its drawbacks, there's something compelling about the Southern pace, community, and food that has enough cumulative power to retain its most marginalized citizens.
Inspired by the interviews, Johnson ended up compiling them in the recently released book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (http://www.uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=1403
He also translated some of the book's most compelling interviews into a one-man stage performance in which he portrays, among others, 60-year-old Atlanta artist Freddie; 93-year-old New Orleans 'Countess Vivian'; and Chaz/Chastity of Hickory, N.C. - who lives as a woman six days a week but dresses as a man on Sundays to sing in the choir.
But which came first; the book or the show? "When I started conducting the interviews in spring 2004, I didn't know the book would become the basis of a performance." Johnson explains. The motivation, and inspiration, for translating the interviews into a stage show came as he continued to encounter "men who told their stories in such a compelling manner that I thought this would make a good performance. But I didn't know if I would cast it with eight to ten men, or if it would be a one-person show."
Johnson settled on the one-man format, and declared himself that one man, largely because "I was there at the interview; so I remember the place, the space, the mannerism and things of that nature. I'm also a performer who's interested in the ways in which oral history and ethnographic material is translated to the stage. Creating the performance was an academic or intellectual enterprise as well as an aesthetic one."
The stage version of "Sweet Tea" was first performed in October, 2006, as the last interviews were being conducted. The book, which was officially published on September 15, dictated the structure of the performance. In the early stages of compiling the book, Johnson "decided to structure it along themes that emerged across the narratives. Just about everyone spoke about religion, had a coming out story, and talked about sex and sexuality. The performance reflects that same structure in terms of me choosing a narrative that addressed a particular theme."
Sweet Tea Time
Both the book and the performance seek answers to the elusive question: why stay in the South when it can be such a hostile place for black gay men? First and foremost, Johnson says it’s all about "the sense of community; a close family, their church, and their participation in things that don’t necessarily have to do with being gay, but with black Southern culture. People are tied to the places where they grew up, and many stay in order to take care of elderly parents."
Apart from family obligations, there’s also the matter of having "jobs they enjoy or the Southern way of life, which is very comfortable for them. For others, it’s a matter of economic mobility. They can’t move because they don’t have enough money to just pick up and move to another place."
For others, it’s simply about food. "They love Southern food; and when they travel outside of it, they don’t like the fact that you can’t get sweet iced tea."
That tea must be awfully good, because Johnson says that some who moved ended back in the South before long: "A number of the men who were born and raised moved away then moved back and were happy to move back. Of those who just moved recently, one wants to move back to Atlanta because he feels there was more of a community."
As for Johnson’s own journey from ethnographic researcher to performer to author, "It’s been a humbling experience. Listening to the stories of these men challenged me to think through what I thought I knew about the South, what I thought I knew about being gay and what it means to be black."