“We're sort of groundbreaking...it's not like there's been a lot of Black Gay theater groups.”
On a Tuesday afternoon in a barren rehearsal hall located in the Center for African & African American Art & Culture, Djola Bernard Branner, Eric Gupton and Brian Freeman, known collectively as Pomo Afro Homos, are putting the finishing touches on Dark Fruit, the follow-up to their critically acclaimed production of Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life.
In a little over 24-hours, Dark Fruit is scheduled to begin the first of a four-week run at Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint in San Francisco; but for now the troupe, along with director Susan Fink, are making last minute script changes and character adjustments.
While the Wednesday, February 12th, opening will be the first time the show will be seen on the West Coast, part of the production was previewed last year while the group was on tour with Fierce Love, says Freeman.
“Last summer, when we were doing the show at Josie’s, George C. Wolfe, author of the Colored Museum, flew out to see us. He had heard about us and invited us to come to a festival he was producing titled “Moving Beyond the Madness” at the Public Theatre in New York,” says Freeman.
“When we told him we were already booked at a theatre workshop in New York for two weeks he said, ‘Well, give me a new show,’ ” continues Freeman. “So we said, ‘OK,’ but we told he it was going to be rough, [and] he said that would be fine. We did the first performance of Dark Fruit at the Public Theatre.”
Freeman sums up the group’s meteoric first year: “In January of 1991 we first come together to do Fierce Love.” By the end of the year Pomo Afro Homos, “were at one of the preeminent theaters in the country.”
The group stresses that while Dark Fruit, like Fierce Love, are stories for, by and about Black Gay men, it is not “Fierce Love 2.”
“The stories are about finding intimacy,” says Branner. “The stories are longer than those in Fierce Love, and we get to stay with the characters longer.”
“Every piece in the show is about relationships,” continues Freeman. “Family relationships, Black/White relationships, Black lover relationships, and community relationships.”
The first piece is called “Black and Gay, A Psycho Sex Study,” “I found this pulp porn novel that is written in a pseudo scientific style and pretends to be an examination of Negro homosexuality,” said Freeman.
“It also pretends to be an analysis of interracial relationships, but from the White perspective. The book was written for White men who are into Black men. We use it to send up a lot of stereotypes that people have. It’s from the 1960s, and we stage it in a very ‘60s style with ‘60s music. The characters tend to be a cartoon.”
Another story titled “Sweet Sadie” is an autobiographical piece written by Branner. “It deals with many emotional facets of my life,” he said.
“It’s about my relationship with my mother. It looks at my childhood and emotional abuse. It looks at having a relationship in which love and disdain coexist. The one night we previewed the show in New York people came up to me and said, ‘That’s my story,’ or, ‘I really relate to that.’ ”
The climax of the production, and sure to be one of the more controversial stories, deals with a series of letters addressed to various people and institutions. Included are letters to Magic Johnson: “Girlfriend, we tried abstinence and it don't work”; the San Francisco AIDS organization Shanti Project: “Please don’t send some White queen to hold my hand”; and a letter to Black Gays who consider themselves “Afrocentric.”
Titled, “Dear Afrocentric,” one line reads, “Your Kinte cloth will not cover your wounds” and plunges headfirst into the controversy around the issue Afro-centricity, an ideology originally popular among Black heterosexuals, but increasingly being adopted by Black Gays.
Many Black heterosexuals feel if one is Gay one cannot be Afrocentric. Some Black Gays feel if one has a White lover, one cannot be truly Afrocentric.
“To be Afrocentric is to be centered in African based culture whether Gay, straight or wavy,” says Branner. “What the letter addresses are Black Gay men who feel that to be Afrocentric is the only way to be Black and a part of the Black Gay community. They say Blacks with White lovers are not a part of the Black community. That letter is a response to that attitude.”
What wont be found in the new production are the effeminate Gay characters in Fierce Love that were reminiscent of Blaine and Antoine of “In Living Color.” However, the members of the group generally feel the ongoing controversy about the characters is overblown.
“I thought the ‘In Living Color’ halftime show was amusing,” says Branner. “It’s in keeping with the tradition that ‘In Living Color’ has established in portraying Gay characters like a lot of people I know. I take television’s portrayal of any Gay character with a grain of salt. However, these are straight men portraying ‘our people’ in a sense. So it’s like White characters in blackface all over again.”
“Black, Gay, effeminate men do exist,” says Gupton. “That’s what part of our version of Blaine and Antoine is about. It’s about the scope, breadth and power of Black Gay men throughout this country.”
While Dark Fruit is a “collaborative effort,” the group did not sit down and write the stories together. Some are autobiographical while others are commentary.
“We write our own stories,” says Gupton. “Then, we read for each other and get criticism.”
One major difference between the productions of Fierce Love and Dark Fruit is “direction.” While Freeman directed Fierce Love, for Dark Fruit the group brought in an outside director. He was asked if it was difficult giving up that power.
“It’s always difficult giving up power,” he responded. “The director within me keeps wanting to leap out, but I felt I needed to be part of the ensemble this time. It’s difficult to be a director, actor and writer at the same time. However, we still talk about the overall scope of the show.”
“In addition, Susan is an excellent director,” added Gupton. “I have a lot of respect for her talent.”
Susan Fink, who works with the Alice B. theatre in Seattle, Washington, has been working on Dark Fruit with the troupe since last summer when she performed what she calls her, “one week wonder.” That was the amount of time she had to rehearse the material before it was performed at the New York Shakespeare Festival. As a White Lesbian, Fink says she had no problem relating to the material, though there were times she didn't understand some of the vocabulary.
“I saw Fierce Love about ten times before I started working with them,” she said, “so I didn’t have to learn a lot. I could just sit in the audience and go, ‘So that’s what a snowstorm is.’ and I just caught on.
“In the studio they are very hungry for an outside eye, so we didn’t spend any time talking about whether I should be saying what I’m saying, or offering what I’m offering.”
However, it was during social moments that she says she felt somewhat out of place. “After the performances in New York, we would go out with people who had come to see the show. That’s when it got interesting and I would pull back a little and ask, ‘What am I doing in this bar with all these Black Gay men?’ However, it enriched my experience and made me come to the rehearsals with a richer sense of life.”
After the critical success of Fierce Love, I wondered if they felt any pressure to produce a follow-up that would be a hit.
“Subconsciously, there probably was,” says Gupton. “But, you get into problems thinking if it’s going to be better than the last show. I think it’s fair to say some people will like it a lot more and some people won’t. Our focus now is to try to work these stories the best way we know how.”
“Actually, some people like Dark Fruit better than Fierce Love, adds Freeman. “It’s like doing your second novel. Fierce Love had been building in us for years, and doing it was the opportunity to get it out. It was a signifying show. It was very quick. It was very light. It was very funny. For Dark Fruit, we had to look a lot deeper.”
“It’s more difficult emotionally to perform than Fierce Love,” says Branner. “This has more dimensions. Plus, it was difficult because we were touring with Fierce Love when we were working on Dark Fruit.”
For the moment, the troupe says Dark Fruit will be, “a work in progress.”
“The show we are doing at the beginning of the run will be very different from the show we do at the end of the run,” says Freeman. “Fierce Love went through many versions before we got to the version we do now. We keep working on it. Also, we need to hear from the community, and the only way to do that is to put it out there.”
Because of the easy familiarity and camaraderie that goes on among them, one could get the impression they had been lifelong friends. However, that is not the case.
“Our friendship is quite new, and the working relationship is quite new,” says Gupton. “I had worked with Djola as principal dancer in his dance company. Brian saw me perform one day and expressed an interest in working on a production at a later date. Brain called Djola, and Djola called me, and that’s how the three of us got together.
“We’ve known each other for a year now and we can sift through what might be personal to get at what’s best for the show. I can say something’s fucked up, but the guys know it’s not personal and I’m only dealing with the artistic merits of a piece. Also, we’re good at listening and doing; that means we have less ‘scenes.’ “
And how did they come up with the unusual name of Pomo Afro Homos?
“We actually got it from Brian’s lover/boyfriend/partner Kobena Mercer, who’s an art historian,” says Gupton.
“After seeing us he said, ‘You guys are really Pomo Afro Homos,’ " says Freeman. “I asked, ‘What’s that?’ He replied, ‘Post Modern African American Homosexuals.’ I laughed, but thought it was kind of catchy. I mentioned it to Eric and Djola, and it stuck.”
Pomo Afro Homos says the one thing they noticed on their travels with Fierce Love was the almost universally positive response they received from Black Gay men to their work.
“No matter where we went, from Mendocino, to Los Angeles, to Portland, to Boston, there seemed to be a general enthusiasm from people to hear these stories,” says Gupton. “It’s been so long since we have been able to see reflections of ourselves on stage.”
“We’re sort of groundbreaking,” adds Freeman. “It’s not like there’s been a lot of Black Gay theater troupes. A lot of the work we have to do is convincing Black Gay and Lesbian communities that there is something out there for them, that quality is high and that they’re going to have fun.”
Letters From San Francisco
By Sidney Brinkley