A lot of Southerners will argue about the perfect recipe or the proper method for making sweet tea. In a similar vein, professor/playwright/performer Dr. E. Patrick Johnson has made many adjustments in his pursuit of finding the right formula for his stage play based upon his award-winning 2008 scholarly book titled Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.
"We've had various permutations of the show and it has really grown," said Johnson, who is bringing Sweet Tea back to the Chicago area for a run at Northwestern University in Evanston at the end of May. "One of the ways that it has grown is that my own story as a gay Black man has framed the play now such that my story is sort of the conceit of the show."
"Patrick's work is so rich. But when you read his scholarly book, none of the men are talking to each other, so I thought in performance it could actually be a conversation between the men because they are all part of a community," said Jane M. Saks, the president and artistic director of the socially conscious non-profit collective known as Project&. "And then of course adding the richness of Patrick's story and narrative to make an even deeper conversation."
Johnson originally intended Sweet Tea just to be a printed collection of narratives from Southern Black men. But along with the encouragement of Saks, Johnson refashioned his book so that the stories could come alive by being performed aloud. Saks has continued to champion Sweet Tea because it is one of those rare instances where a scholar is actually staging his research. But finding that right mix for the stage has been a continuous adjustment.
An early adaptation was titled Pouring Tea and was simply performed in the manner of reader's theater. Later, the retitled Sweet Tea became a more fully realized staging in a 2010 Chicago co-production by About Face Theatre at the former Viaduct Theatre complete with an onstage tree coated in Spanish moss and hanging illuminated jars. This production later played the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.
Understandably, Sweet Tea has had to become more simplified scenically as Johnson and Saks have toured the show extensively throughout the country, most recently in Los Angeles. But Johnson feels Sweet Tea digs a lot deeper now, especially since he says there is much more sugar in the show's recipe now.
"In this version, sugar takes on a more symbolic role connecting to all the different ways that sugar is connected to African Americans in this country from historically working on sugar cane plantations to sugar being a part of folklore," Johnson said. "Also sugar being a euphemism for diabetes which also plagues African-American communities to sugar being part of all of the rituals that happen in the play. It's not sugar for sugar's sake, it is sugar with a purposeand of course some of the terms that are used to describe gay people like 'sugar in the tank.'"
Not only is Project& helming the Evanston return of Sweet Tea, but also its upcoming tour to the National Black Theatre Festival this August in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Saks said this engagement is particularly important, since queer works haven't typically been staged at the festival.
Although Johnson has his hands full with touring Sweet Tea, he's also in the midst of creating a companion text called Honey Pot, which is about the lives of Southern Black lesbians. It's a subject that Johnson didn't feel qualified to tackle as a man. Johnson also thought that once his Sweet Tea book was published, another colleague would pick up the mantle for her own scholarly book on lesbians.
"But it didn't happen," Johnson said. "I kept having women come to see Sweet Tea and during the Q&A session saying, 'When are you going to write our stories?' or 'When are you going to do Pink Lemonade?'which I did consider for a title."
Johnson was understandably nervous about being able to get women to open up to him with their life storiesparticularly if there were histories of sexual violence perpetrated by men.
"I did 77 interviews for Sweet Tea, but I did 81 for Honey Pot," Johnson said. "So they outtalked the men. So my plan this summer is to finish the book and to really start to think about a script."
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South plays May 28-June 7 at Northwestern University's Hal and Martha Hyer Wallis Theatre, 1949 Campus Dr., Evanston. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with 2 p.m. matinees Sundays ( no show Saturday, May 30 ). Tickets are $15; $10 for seniors and students. Visit www.projectand.org or www.communication.northwestern.edu/wirtz/special_events .