E. Patrick Johnson is the Carlos Montezuma Professor of African American Studies and Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Dr. Johnson is a playwright, actor, performance scholar, and queer theorist. He recently performed his acclaimed show SWEET TEA at Adams House Pool Teatre on Saturday, February 1. Our office had the opportunity to interview Dr. Johnson after his performance about queer identity, intersectionality, and Black history:
Q: What inspired your performance, SWEET TEA: Black Gay Men in the South?
The stories themselves inspired the show. While conducting the interviews for the book, I began to realize that the stories needed to be performed to really capture the nuances of the men's way of speaking and to bring the stories to life in a way that just reading them on the page could not.
Q: Much of your research has focused on queer identity and performance. Can you elaborate on why performance is an effective medium for advocacy?
I use performance as an object of study and a method of study. In other words, I analyze the way people perform their identities (e.g., through speech, gesture, ritual, etc.), and I also employ performance to try to understand the Other. By performing someone's else's culture or story, we can come to understand them better. I also believe that performance can be a mode of advocacy in the way that it can reach different kinds of audiences to highlight the life stories and plight of others. Not everyone will read a book about black gay men of the South, but they might perhaps come to a performance.
Q: The South has the stereotype of being not-so-progressive when it comes to queer issues and, historically, the rights of people of color. In your research, how is this stereotype supported and/or refuted?
Every region of the country has its own history of racism and homophobia and the South is no different. One of the things that I hope my research does is to explain why racism and homophobia manifests in the particular ways it does and to dispel the myth that the South is monolithic. The range of stories I collected bear this out. Unlike the typical stereotype of the South as being inhospitable to black queers, these stories demonstrate that while there is discrimination and oppression, there is also thriving communities. It is the contradictions that make this research so interesting.
Q: What is the the significance of Black history on the LGBTQ movement, if any?
Given that many of the folks on the forefront of civil rights issues were also members of the LGBT community, black history and the LGBTQ movement are not mutually exclusive. I think of Bayard Rustin, who was the right-hand man of Martin Luther King, Jr. and who was openly gay, who orchestrated the 1963 March on Washington. And there are many, many more activists, writers, singers, and artists, who were both black and queer who were instrumental in fighting for civil rights for both blacks and queers.
Q: Are there any sneak peaks of upcoming projects after SWEET TEA that you are willing to share?
I am currently working on the follow-up to SWEET TEA. It's called, "HONEYPOT: BLACK LESBIANS OF THE SOUTHâ€”AN ORAL HISTORY." I'm hoping that it will be out next year. In the meantime, I'll be directing a staged reading based on the narratives I've collected so far. That will go up at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on February 28 and March 1.
Q: Any other thoughts or words of wisdom for the students of Harvard College?
It is so important for students to continue to do research on the LGBTQ community. There is still so much of our history that is still untold. and it is going to take the next generation of scholars to unearth it and bring it to light. It would fascinating, for instance, to learn more about the Adams House as a queer space. I understand that the pool that's now the theater was quite a site for the queer community. It was an honor to perform there!