“Pouring Tea” to debut at Charity Randall Theatre

By Gwenn Barney

E. Patrick Johnson has fielded the same unusual question several times following the performance… E. Patrick Johnson has fielded the same unusual question several times following the performance of his one-man show, “Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales.”

“People come up to me after the show and they ask me, ‘Are you schizophrenic?’” Johnson said with a chuckle. Johnson doesn’t suffer from any type of multiple personality disorder, but he does embrace multiple personalities — nine to be exact — for “Pouring Tea.”

Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University, will debut a one-night-only performance of his show at the Charity Randall Theatre in Pitt’s Stephen Foster Memorial Wednesday at 8 p.m. In the piece, he reenacts the life stories of nine black, southern gay men between the ages of 21 and 93.

“Pouring Tea” has its roots in a book Johnson completed nine years ago, “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.” For that book, he conducted 63 interviews with black gay men from 15 different southern states. His research amounted to about 3,000 pages of transcription.

“[These stories] haven’t been told before. No one has ever chronicled this segment of the population. But these stories are an important part of history and southern history,” Johnson said.

“When I started interviewing the men for the project, a lot of them were great storytellers and just really had me captivated,” Johnson said. “When I started to transcribe the narratives for the book, I determined that a lot of the stories felt flat on the page and the reader really wouldn’t get a sense of how this person sounded, how they put stress on this word or that phrase. And also a lot of regions of the south have different dialects, and so I said, ‘There has to be a way that I can sort of recreate the interview experience for the reader.’ And that’s when I came up with the idea for doing a show.”

Johnson said that in the black gay community, pouring tea is slang for sharing gossip.

The nine stories Johnson chose to perform as oral histories for “Pouring Tea” center on the experiences of living as a southern black gay man, but, Johnson said, they encompass universal themes to which anyone can relate.

“I think anyone can see part of themselves in these stories,” he said. “Though the stories are specific to these men, the themes are universal themes of family relations, trying to reconcile spirituality with sexuality, growing up, having loved and lost. People should come to the show ready to be inspired, to laugh, to cry — ready to engage with stories that are about the human spirit and the way that we as human beings are resilient.”

The oldest character Johnson embodies is Countess Vivian of New Orleans, who was 93 when Johnson interviewed him and will turn 100 in November.

“It’s inspiring to see someone who’s lived a century as an openly gay man,” Johnson said. “He’s so funny and so full of life. I love them all, but Countess Vivian is my favorite to perform.”

Johnson calls another character’s story, Chaz/Chastity’s, “one of the more compelling narratives I perform.” Chastity lives as a female hair stylist six days a week but switches to being the male Chaz on Sunday to perform in his church’s choir.

Over the eight years that Johnson has performed and perfected his impressions of the men he portrays, they’ve become a part of him.

“I feel that I really carry these men inside me. I think when I come to Pitt it will be my 83rd performance, so by now they are inside me,” he said.

Esther Terry, a member of the graduate student society of Pitt’s Theatre Arts Department, learned of Johnson’s show when she met him at a conference in June.

The Duse Society sponsored Johnson’s upcoming appearance in cooperation with Pitt’s Department of Sociology, Department of Theatre Arts, The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the Humanities Center and the Performance Collaborative.

Terry said the importance of Johnson’s show rests in the hidden face of American history that it reveals. She said it fills in “gaps in southern regional history, as well as a queer and black American history.”

She describes “Pouring Tea” as “a compelling combination of theater, history, race, class, gender and everyday life.”

This summer, Johnson plans to begin a companion project to “Sweet Tea,” in which he will collect oral histories of black lesbians of the south.

“Initially, I was going to include lesbians in my first book, but I realized I had too much information. Now I’m going back,” he said.

Presently though, he’s focused on Wednesday night’s performance at Pitt.

“I’m really excited about performing at Pitt. I’ve never been to the University of Pittsburgh ever before. I really like interacting with students at the different campuses I’ve been visiting.”

In addition to his his performance, Johnson will present a lecture earlier on Wednesday titled “Border Intellectual: Performing Identity at the Crossroads.” The lecture, scheduled to run from 2:30 to 4 p.m., will take place in the Humanities Center, Room 602 of the Cathedral of Learning.