Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media Columbia College and About Face Theatre presents
SWEET TEA: Black Gay Men of the South
At Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western
Written and performed by E. Patrick Johnson
Directed by Daniel Alexander Jones
Thru May 29th
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes includes an intermission and delayed start.
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
One to three cups of sugar. Real lemon verses constituted juice. Brewed or instant tea. The beverage of choice in the south, sweet tea has as ‘many recipes as there are Southerners.’ Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media at Columbia College Chicago and About Face Theatre presents the world premiere SWEET TEA: Black Gay Men of the South. Interviewing over 70 men, aged 19 to 93, E. Patrick Johnson published a compilation of stories about being black and gay in the South. Johnson takes multiple characters from his book to the stage in SWEET TEA. In Southern slang, ‘sweet’ means gay and ‘tea’ indicates gossip. Experiencing SWEET TEA is like sipping drinks on the porch as a group of gentlemen charm you with personal tales of triumph over adversity. This SWEET TEA is a tall, refreshing drink of Southern hospitality!
The eclectic group of gentlemen in SWEET TEA are all played by the charismatic playwright E. Patrick Johnson. Throughout the show, Johnson breaks the fourth wall with the audience by flirting, shaking hands, taking pictures, and passing out candy. By radiating personal warmth, Johnson transports the audience to simpler times and invites them to listen for a spell. Under a magnificent tree adorned with lit jars and trinkets (designer Grant Sabin), Johnson morphs into multiple distinct men. One of the more memorable ones is the Countess Vivian. Johnson lights up in delight as an amusing sage grounded in simplicity. ‘I have a couple of teeth but I don’t want to wear them.’ As the ‘mean little sissy,’ Johnson uses a timid voice telling boys to ‘leave me alone!’ Sissy also carries and uses a razor blade. Even as himself, Johnson is a balance of funny and poignant as he tells the story of his mother’s verbal acceptance that took ten years to actualize. Winding through a variety of topics, like, coming out, AIDS epidemic, relationships, Johnson portrays Southern culture as polite society with acceptance of the queer. As told by the interviewed or created by Johnson, there are many vivid descriptors of growing up as a black, gay, Southern gentleman. ‘I didn’t clutch pearls back then.’ ‘The army isn’t where you can be all you can be. The black church is.’ ‘Just try to be decent, Freddie. I’m always decent, mother.’
SWEET TEA took many lifetimes to make and is a beverage best savored sipped not gulped. Daniel Alexander Jones directs Johnson through the series of stories with a carefree pace. It’s a lovely slow drawl of gossip on the back porch. Johnson takes his time to share a character’s musing that distinguishes a mundane moment as a pivotal life passage. ‘My summer of discontent.’ It’s the depth of the memoir collection that makes this SWEET TEA particularly thirst-quenching. Initially, it satisfies as a light and breezy refreshment but then there is a strong aftertaste that is truly bittersweet. Knowing the ‘coming out’ stories of my main gays, I can’t help but wish that Midwesterners enjoyed their tea a little sweeter.