The 22nd annual Southern Festival of Books is scheduled for Oct. 8-10, and the GLBT community will be featured in a special presentation. As part of the civility forum “Building Community in the 21st Century – Perspectives on Civility & Democracy” there will be a performance by Patrick Johnson, head of the theater department at Northwestern University and author of "Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South."
This is a one-man show based on interviews Johnson conducted with men of varying ages and backgrounds about being gay and black in the South. In a phone conversation with O&AN, Johnson discusses what festival attendees can expect as he approaches this important topic.
What drew you to translate your book into a live performance?
Well, the whole performance is drawn from narratives in my book. I began performing narratives from that book two years before it was published in fact. While I was conducting interviews, I felt that so many of these stories needed to be performed. These men were such great storytellers. I thought the audience needed to actually hear them to get the biggest impact.
In this version of the show, I play excerpts from the original interview. The audience hears the voices of those who were interviewed. I always wanted to allow the men to speak for themselves. I didn’t want to create a caricature of them or make a mockery of them. I wanted to honor their stories. I’ve performed this particular show for the last four years in sixty venues. The show has turned into a theatre piece now. It’s a one-man show, but now I have a designer, director and production team. It was a really wonderful experience to have turned this into a play.
For people who are unfamiliar with this work, what topics can they expect to be tackled?
As you can imagine, religion was a big topic, whether that be people wrestling with religion and their faith or people who had left the church altogether. Of course, the coming out process is discussed. The men talk about how they came out and to whom, and then all the drama that comes with that. Sex is a big issue. This work talks about different places and eras of time. The oldest man i interviewed was born in 1912 in New Orleans. He told me about the tranny hookers in the French Quarter. Then of course we talk about the historically black colleges in the Sixties and Seventies. Many times the men are just sharing their stories about growing up in the South. Some of them (the stories) don’t have anything to do with being gay per se. It’s not featured in my performance, but there’s also a section in the book on transgenders as well.
Each audience member will clearly bring his or her own perspective to these passages. What’s the overarching theme that you hope all people will draw from this production?
The one thing I would say is these men’s humanities. Their struggles are universal struggles. We’ve all struggled with being bullied. We’ve all struggled with issues with our parents. We’ve also struggled with figuring out who we are as people. All the men have some sort of resilience. They come out on the other end better for it. Some of the other stories are quite humorous actually. For them it seems like this was a healing process.
Johnson will be performing on Saturday, October 9 at the Tennessee Capitol Building at 2 p.m. The Southern Festival of Books takes place October 8-10 at War Memorial Plaza downtown. It is free and open to the public.
Now in its 22nd year, the Southern Festival of Books offers book lovers the chance to enjoy author readings, book signings, a Children’s Stage, Music/Café Stage, Chapter 16 Stage, food and more! You can see the full schedule online.