Assistant Opinion & Editorial Editor
Scholar E. Patrick Johnson performed a portion of Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales during Common Hour at the Barshinger Center for Musical Arts, Thursday. Created by Johnson, Pouring Tea is a show centered around excerpts from his book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South — An Oral History, which is a collection of narratives from a series of interviews Johnson conducted with gay African American men between 2004 and 2006.
The men whose stories the show and the book feature were each born and bred south of the Mason-Dixon line and continue to call the South home. Their ages range from 19 to 93 and their stories range from the colorful and comic to the provocative and powerful.
“I started with people that I knew who were still living in the South, in North Carolina and the surrounding area, and then it literally snowballed,” Johnson explained of the logistics behind his project. “I ended up doing 77 interviews, and there were 3,000 pages of transcript, and so you can imagine trying to whittle that down into something a publisher would publish.”
In consolidating his material, Johnson sought to speak to what he found to be common threads running through most of the men’s lives.
“I read over all of the whole history and looked for things that merged across all of the areas, and that’s how the book came together,” Johnson said. “So, everyone told their [stories] about coming out, stories about religion, about sex, their first sexual experience, and that is the way the book is organized.”
Pouring Tea, an abridged version of his ninety-minute show, featured Johnson reciting the narratives of five different men in a persona unique to each. Johnson began Pouring Tea with “Early Childhood,” as told by Freddie, 61 at the time of his interview. Johnson-as-Freddie recalled his childhood, focusing namely on his struggles to overcome the “Southern Sainted Mother Myth.” “Just because she’s your mother, doesn’t mean she’s no saint,” the character said. Freddie’s own mother, though determined to keep him after his grandmother had given her away, was abusive, as Johnson-as-Freddie recalled.
“Her only saving grace was, ‘at least I didn’t give you away,”’ he said. “Even though she treated us like dirt. So, for much of my life, I just felt very much alone.”
Then, to the strains of Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” Freddie suddenly became Michael in “Coming Out,” retelling his gradual process of coming out to his family. Though it was never said in as many words, Johnson-as-Michael jauntily noted that the tall perm he received as part of a modeling job, one which his father initially tried to hack off with hedge clippers, worked as an unspoken icebreaker.
As “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” filled the air, the audience was then introduced to “Countess Vivian,” otherwise known as George Eagerson, regaling her spectators with tales of “Coming of Age in the 1920s and ’30s.”
93 years young at the time of her interview, Countess Vivian relayed several memorable anecdotes of the nature of gay clubs in her youth; in one particularly colorful exchange, the Countess recalled how a number of white men would frequent black gay bars, often to enjoy the company of those whom their peers may have viewed as unsavory characters.
“So, let me get this straight: sometimes these were white men picking up black transvestites?” Johnson asked as himself.
“Oh no, not sometimes. Always,” Johnson-as-Vivian patiently rejoined.
But to the tune “Go To the Mardi Gras,” by Donny Hathaway, the audience was then introduced to Stephen in “Peer Pressure,” as he discussed his attempts through college to deny and repress his sexuality.
“I became known as the only straight guy in the drama department,” he said.
He also attempted to reconcile that sexuality with his faith. “From every angle I was being told, ‘you’ve got it wrong,’” Johnson-as-Stephen said. “So I fixed it. I fixed the problem. I fixed what other people thought was wrong, and it’s all so funny now… It makes me wonder, how much of this is really me, and how much of this is what I changed to fit in?” Then, as RuPaul’s “Cover Girl” began to blast, Johnson debuted his fifth and final story of the hour: “Being a Southern Diva,” as told by Duncan Teague, the only man Johnson interviewed who, as he wryly noted, insisted upon the usage of his full name.
Teague moved to Atlanta as a young man to pursue a career in theatre, and was instead confronted with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
“I made decisions that allowed me to be negative of HIV but still involved with the epidemic,” Johnson-as-Teague explained, “because my status has not prevented me from being affected in other ways. I think the decision I’m most proud of is just going ahead and being black and gay. Not something else, but being black and gay is the one I’m most proud of.”
Johnson, currently the Carlos Montezuma professor in the department of performance studies and African American studies at Northwestern University, has performed Pouring Tea at 90 colleges and universities across the United States since 2006. When asked by Cameron Koob ’16 of the most striking audience reactions his show had ever received, Johnson described an emotional encounter that took place after his performance at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, his own alma mater. An apparently aggressive man jumped up from the audience and yelled, “How do you deal with you and your God?!”
“He’s running toward me; by the time I turned around, he’s there, and he grabs me,” Johnson said. “But he is just weeping, and he’s saying in my ear, ‘thank you so much, thank you so much, thank you, thank you so much.’”
The man revealed to Johnson he had just come out himself, to be met with the departure of his wife and rejection by his son. He had been advised to see Johnson’s show by his therapist.
“He was really wrestling with his sexuality, and hearing these men’s stories had helped him in some way,” Johnson recalled. “So, those kinds of reactions are the ones that stay with you, because you never know what is going on within the audience.”
Johnson also relayed another anecdote of an equally dramatic, though, in this case, comic, reaction on tour. He performed at the main library in Mobile, Alabama to a group composed of but two African Americans and a veritable swarm of white septuagenarians.
“So I was like, this is going to be very interesting,” he laughed. “But it was fine, you know, they responded… so, you know, after a couple questions, a minister stood up, and that’s when I thought ‘Oh my God, here we go.’ And he said the following,” Johnson paused, cleared his throat, and then affected a haughty, high-pitched accent as classically Southern as sweet tea itself: ‘Dr. Johnson, we’re so happy to have you here in Mobile, Alabama. Because we need to talk more about spirituality, and sexuality. Because God was there for the first wet vagina, and God was there for the first erection. And He said, ‘It is good.’” With a laugh, Johnson concluded, “All I could say to that was ‘Amen!’”
Questions? Email Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.