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“What the map cuts apart, the story cuts across,” says E. Patrick Johnson toward the end of Sweet Tea. Though the observation isn’t original to him, a citation actually seems about right: The show is a kind of performed oral history, after all, an Anna Deavere Smith-style tour through place and personality, and if there’s a stronger sense of the latter in most of the quick cuts that make up Johnson’s 90-minute solo turn, I can still vouch—as a Southerner born and bred myself—for the show’s warm evocation of the queer cultural geography that shapes its characters.
From North Carolina choir lofts to Georgia schoolyards to the New Orleans garden where the nonagenarian Countess Vivian holds court, the where shapes the who in these stories—and vice versa, as men push slyly at boundaries and barriers most Yankees (and even many Southern whites) might assume are set in stone. Easy, entertaining reflections about sassy little sissies with the balls to cut a bully give way to more complicated but no less engaging narratives addressing how black gay men carve out space within—or negotiate exits from—the churches that help bind their communities. (“Karma,” says one man who sat through Bishop Eddie Long’s sermons on the origins of queerness, “is a bitch.”)
The impact of AIDS is an inevitable subject, though oddly that passage packs less of an emotional punch than you might expect; some mildly explicit reflections on sexuality, by contrast—not least a bracingly coarse bit about a college man making his way through the football squad—will be more surprising to some audiences, and they help make Sweet Tea feel like a rounder, realer portrait of a community that is after all bound by a shared sexuality.
And by shared stories—the telling of which, as any good Southerner will agree, is half of what makes life worth living.