Playwright: E. Patrick Johnson. At: Project& at Northwestern University's Wallis Theatre, 1949 Campus Dr., Evanston. Tix: www.communication.northwestern.edu or www.projectand.org; $10-$15. Runs through: June 7
"This show needs some kind of thesis statement." That was my main thought back in 2010 when I saw About Face Theatre's professional Chicago premiere of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. The show was E. Patrick Johnson's theatrical adaptation of his own 2008 scholarly book of the same name.
A one-man performance where a chameleon-like Johnson craftily embodied a number of his book interviewees drawn from all over the South, Sweet Tea was full of colorful and specific details about how folk from an often misunderstood minority group functions from within a wider U.S. minority group that has carried a burden of centuries of servitude and discrimination. But Sweet Tea, back then, seemed to meander along without a clear-cut goal or framing device to tie the stories together.
Now that Sweet Tea is back again in a limited run produced by Project& at Northwestern University in Evanston, I'm very impressed to see that Johnson has found stronger way to tie together all of his collected characters' stories. And he's done it via a thoroughly revised script and a streamlined production directed by Joseph Megel.
Sweet Tea is so much richer this time around, since Johnson has injected many of his own stories of growing up gifted and gay in Hickory, North Carolina, and how that upbringing has impacted his life in relation to his many interview subjects. This approach doesn't allow Johnson to hide behind the mask of his real-life characters, so Sweet Tea is much more emotionally direct and incisively personal this time around.
Megel's staging also helps you feel like you're traversing on a number of life journeys through the South thanks to Alex Maness' map-filled projection designs that flit across the dominant dressing screen in David Navalinsky's simplified scenic design. Megel and lighting designers Kathy Perkins and Jim Davis also help to keep the transitions speedy as Johnson adds costume designer Marissa Erickson's suggestive adornments to help delineate between the wide array of African-American men from different generations and classes.
Understandably, with the inclusion of more of Johnson's autobiographical stories, some of the previous material in Sweet Tea had to go. I particularly miss the explanation of why so much sugar is necessary in recipes for Southern sweet tea and the joked about health hazards that came with it.
Yet Sweet Tea is so much stronger in Johnson's new and deeply personal brew this time around, so there's not much to quibble about. Johnson's stories of his subjects sing and dance again on stage in Sweet Tea, but this time around he's bravely sharing right up alongside all of them.