With E. Patrick Johnson’s one-man show Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales, the scholar and performer shares the personal stories of men all over the region, touching on religion, sex, transgenderism, and the human commonalities that we all share. These are honest stories, stories of hope and heartache, pride and pain. Culling these confessional narratives collected in his book, Sweet Tea, Johnson embodies the men he portrays and takes the audience on an intimate journey through their lives.
As a part of this year’s Pride week, the College of Charleston’s Avery Institute and S.C. Equality have partnered with Charleston Pride to bring Johnson to Charleston for a one-night-only performance of Pouring Tea on Aug. 6 at 8 p.m. at the College of Charleston’s Emmett Robinson Theater. Leading up to the performance, Johnson took some time to talk with the City Paper about the show and the importance of sharing the stories of these men.
City Paper: What can the audience expect when they sit down to experience the show?
E. Patrick Johnson: I sometimes liken it to the black, gay, Southern version of the Vagina Monologues in that it’s me on a stool sort of channeling nine of the men that I interviewed for my book. So the performance is based on my interviews with black gay men that were born and raised and continue to live in the South. In the show I try to give a representative sample of the range of men I’ve interviewed, from the 93-year-old from New Orleans named Countess Vivian to the 21-year-old that I interviewed in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and even to the transgender person I interviewed who is actually from my hometown in Hickory, N.C. I perform a range of stories to give audiences a sense of being black and gay and Southern, but also dispelling certain myths about the South in general — that it is not a place where everybody is closeted or repressed, that everybody who might be LGBTQ is not miserable in the South — but also to show that the stories are human stories.
CP: One thing that I think really interests me about the performance is the fact that you embody all of these different characters throughout the show. What is that like for you to personally step into a person’s skin and then transition from one character to the next?
EPJ: As a performer, for me it’s a challenge and one that I love taking on. But it’s also a very humbling experience for me. I feel that these men have given me a gift in the sense that they have entrusted me with their stories and these are very intimate details of their lives. So I feel an ethical and moral responsibility to hold these stories in a responsible way, in a way that does not make a mockery of them, but also in a way that doesn’t make them precious. What I mean by that is these men are not saints. They are human, and as humans we also have our flaws. Trying to capture that in the performance, I’m walking a tight rope, but it’s one that I do from a position of ethical and moral responsibility to take care with the stories.
CP: When you perform the show, for instance, in front of a Southern audience or an audience from a different region, have you noticed any different takeaways that people who experience the show get depending on where they are or where they’re from?
EPJ: That’s an interesting question because I used to try to predict how the audience would respond based on where I was performing and I stopped doing that because I was always shocked. I always thought, in the North they’re not going to be as responsive and they’re not going to get some things, whereas in the South they’ll be really responsive, but no. So I stopped trying to predict how people would respond because I would always be surprised. One story that I love sharing is when I was performing the show in Mobile, Ala. It was at the main library. I typically do the show, if it’s not for a gay organization, it’s usually at a university or college. But this was an anomaly because it was the main library there and most of the audience was elderly white people. I was thinking, “This is not going to go well.” But to my surprise, it went very well. People were engaged and it was packed, but the thing that shocked me most was when a preacher stood up, a white preacher, who said one of the most shocking things I’ve ever heard. He said in this very Martin Luther King-esque voice, “Dr. Johnson, thank you for coming to Mobile. We need to talk more about spirituality and sexuality because God was there for the first erection and God was there for the first wet vagina, and he said, ‘It is good.'” So after that, I tried to stop trying to predict how audiences would respond because you never know how these stories are going to touch someone in a way that is unexpected. … I will say that I’ve never had a negative response because you fall in love with these men, even the ones that are complicated because you see their humanity. It’s hard to dislike someone when you see their shared humanity.