Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South
Like other solo performers such as Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones, Johnson incarnates each person through shifts in posture, vocal tone and timbre, and facial expression with minimal changes in costume. Klyph Stanford's scenic design evokes a back porch out of memory, boasting a tire swing, flowers in a window box, wrought iron railings, and comfortable chairsa place where reminiscences can flow and overlap.
Johnson begins the performance with a look into his own history as a gay African American, determined to succeed in Hickory, North Carolina, a town whose schools were not integrated until 1973. "It wasn't just being black, but also being gay that drove my overachievement," he explains. "I told people the story they wanted to hear, not the one I had to tell"and revealing his own story later led him to those of other people.
For example, there's Countess Vivian, now 99 years old, a delicate man wearing a fluttery rainbow scarf while pouring large quantities of sugar into a pitcher of iced tea and telling stories of long-ago New Orleans; Freddie, who describes how he fought back against bullies and earned a reputation as "a mean little sissy"; a charismatic preacher who tries to balance sexual orientation with behavior (it's all right to be gay as long as you never act on your desires); Stephen, whose need to "be a man" leads him in unexpected directions; and several characters recollecting friends and lovers lost to AIDS.
Many of the stories are serious, but Johnson also conveys a lot of humor and, above all, empathy. These interviews give voice to people who too often are invisible, and many of their words are epigrammatic: "It's so easy to be loved for something you're not, rather than hated for what you are," or "Being faced with death gave me more life," or "It ain't the Army where you can be all you can be, it's the black church."
In Sweet Tea, Johnson opens a window on a world that is unfamiliar to most people, and he does it with beauty and dignity.