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Theater Review: “Sweet Tea” at the Signature Theatre

E. Patrick Johnson’s one-man show explores his experiences growing up gay and black in the South

E. Patrick Johnson in his one-man show, Sweet Tea. Photograph by Scott Suchman

☆☆☆ out of four

E. Patrick Johnson is a minority within a minority within a minority. He’s a black man. He’s also gay. And from growing up in Hickory, North Carolina, he became the first African American in his hometown to earn a PhD.

It’s a unique perspective, but he’s found some common ground in other men who grew up black and gay in the South in the past century. He brings their stories and his together in Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, his one-man show directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj currently playing at Signature Theatre.

With a cozy set reminiscent of a Southern porch serving as a backdrop, Johnson shifts smoothly from character to character, as each reminisces about their earliest sexual encounters, their battles with the HIV virus, their experiences living in a culture that often doesn’t embrace homosexuality. Vignettes are loosely connected with snippets of song—frequently spirituals—giving Johnson the chance to show off his warm, rich singing voice.

One thought-provoking section in Sweet Tea revolves around the black church, and various characters’ approach to religion. Their stances range from dismissive—“I won’t be castigated and then asked to sing a solo,” one man says frankly—to more ambiguous, such as a preacher who wrestles with believing his own nature is a sin.

Sweet Tea takes on some complicated subject matters—a father’s recounting of coming out to his four-year-old son is particularly moving—but overall its tone feels more personal than provocative. When he is telling his story through his own eyes rather than those he’s interviewed, it’s a pleasure to get to know Johnson himself, to share in his loving relationship with his partner Stephen, to hear him wrestle with the death of close friends.

And when he steps outside himself into character (usually one that is more over-the-top than he is), Johnson has an infectious energy and is frequently hilarious, whether embodying a cross dresser doing his best Patti LaBelle impersonation or a college student recounting the numerous athletes he’s slept with. Johnson has an easy rapport with the audience, who laugh along as Johnson jokes and interacts with them. Sweet Tea may not be afraid to tackle heavy territory, but Johnson is most irresistible during the show’s lighter moments.

Sweet Tea runs through October 9 at Signature Theatre. Tickets ($40) are available at Signature’s Web site.