We learn during E. Patrick Johnson's captivating one-man performance that he was the first black man from Hickory, N.C., to earn a Ph.D. For this, he notes wryly, the city of Hickory honored him with a hickory stick, rather than a key to the city. "Not just being black but being gay motivated my overachievement," he says in the 100-minute performance Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, an achievement crafted from his massive tome of the same name, for which, beginning in 2004, he collected life stories from dozens of men. The academic book was turned out for the stage with the help of producer Jane M. Saks and has taken its tour-ready form under the direction of Joseph Megel.
Sweet Tea comprises a remarkable series of vignettes alternating between some of the robust characters Johnson interviewed, and himself as a character. It opens and closes with an ancient New Orleans man, whose moniker early on became Countess Vivian, wearing a gray shirt, turquoise pants and brocade slippers, who mixes a jar of sweet tea and serves the fortunate in the front row while telling how it used to be when he was a young man. After this seductive and disarming introduction, he disappears behind a folding screen and re-emerges as E. Patrick Johnson, in a turquoise shirt and gray pants.
Johnson tells us that he needed to tell his own story, "but to get there, I had to bear witness," and that "if you want the truth, you start the truth at the beginning." In pursuing the truths of those who've gone before him, he becomes better able to discern his own narrative. In addition to words, he uses song and dance to infuse the tales with life.
The device of alternating the stories works very well here, as each man has something moving (and sometimes painful) to tell, and Johnson is skilled at quickly creating the varied characters. Each vignette allows him to go further into the next chapter of his own story, as if the others' lives were beaming a raking sidelight on his.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Sweet Tea is that the artist has achieved the near impossible: His stories of self do not scream "me me me," but rather sing of an us that is rarely seen or lauded. As he said after the show, "the best autobiographical work is work that opens out."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theatrical uprisings."