It takes little more than a bar stool and a glass of iced tea for writer and performer Patrick Johnson to get his message across.
Johnson, 44, sits alone onstage, sipping his tea and telling true stories. His Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales comes out of interviews done for his 2008 book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, an Oral History.
"I wasn't thinking about performance until I was listening to these men and listening to them tell their stories," he says. "I realized the stories would fall flat just on the page and should be lifted off the page and performed."
Professor and chair in the Department of Performance Studies and professor in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University, Johnson shares many of the struggles described in his work, having grown up in North Carolina and being black and gay himself.
"It's intended as an archive for black, gay life in the South because it's important for people to understand there is a community there," Johnson says. "If I had a book like this growing up, I think it would have made my coming to terms with my sexuality a bit easier."
Sweet Tea's 63 interviews make for a compendium of experiences that touch on coming of age, religion, sex, transgenderism, love and coming out. Pouring Tea highlights experiences of nine of those subjects, including Countess Vivian, a 93-year-old New Orleans man; Freddie, an Atlanta man in his late 60s; and Stephen, a 21-year-old raised in Alabama.
"Countess Vivian is a very special person, not only because of his age but because he's such a remarkable person," Johnson says. "He survived Hurricane Katrina, never left his home. His is a story of resilience, like many of the men I interviewed."
Johnson says Freddie brings a particularly "disturbing" story of a family that rejected him from an early age, but is told through humor and hope. Stephen, the youngest of Johnson's interviewees, created an overtly masculine persona to mask his sexuality, leading him to become a father after getting his girlfriend pregnant.
"He tailored his behavior to other boys so well that when he finally came out in college, no one believed him," Johnson adds. "It's all about the pressure to conform."
Johnson's one-man performance has grown into a play named Sweet Tea, a larger-scale production that debuted last year at the Viaduct Theater in Chicago. It includes many of the same stories as Pouring Tea but intertwines Johnson's experience with those of his interviewees.
"In every performance, whether it includes my personal story or not, it's my personal and ethical responsibility to take care of these men when I'm telling their story because they entrusted me with their life stories," Johnson says. "I take it very seriously."