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October 4, 2006
No More Drama: Black Theater Takes on Homophobia
by Laura Whitehorn
October 4, 2006—A dark stage in a small theater on New York City’s Lower East Side brightens slightly to reveal the altar of a deserted church. A young black man staggers from the shadows. Clutching a bottle, he rails drunkenly at the church for excluding him and his lover from a special mass for couples. Enter God—a.k.a. “Miss Sophie”—who reminds him of his cowardice in the face of this homophobia, for which his lover has now left him. “You’re cultivating the seeds of self-destruction your church planted in you,” she intones. “You need to declare your love to the heavens.”
Even God can seem powerless against the mounting toll of HIV in black communities. But Miss Sophie is not alone. A Love Like Damien’sis part of a new theater movement confronting the epidemic, not just in entertainment-overloaded New York but in Washington, DC; Cleveland; Cincinnati; and Seattle. Artists are training their creative powers on homophobia as one particularly stubborn obstacle keeping black people from getting tested for HIV or getting treated once they’re diagnosed.
Anthony Morgan of the New York State Black Gay Network says this moment is unlike any since the days of the late positive black artists Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill, part of the group Other Countries in the 1980s and ’90s. The message in this second wave is that black gay and bisexual people need to—and can—win acceptance from the broader black community as a step toward addressing health issues that affect everyone. “AIDS is still rising in our community, and it’s unacceptable,” Morgan says. “So we realized we have to dig into our toolbox for different tools.”
Some of the most powerful performance themes are inspired by the artists’ own travails. Monte Wolfe, for instance, who cofounded the Brave Souls Collective in Washington, DC, was able to turn the real-life drama of his difficulties disclosing his HIV to his mother into a dramatic monologue to be performed in November.
The idea is to teach through the heart as well as the brain. New York dramatist and novelist Sarah Schulman says theater’s potential for change is so great because “you’re watching another human being be transformed at that very moment.” The actor and the audience are “going through a profound emotional experience in the same place and time.”
Kenyon Farrow, a black gay writer and activist who saw Damien’s in New York last month, says he left the theater with a sense of elation. “I felt like I was back at my great uncle’s church in Cleveland. We were all fanning ourselves and shouting out reactions to the drama.” As the play reached its climax and Damien’s church blessed its gay congregants alongside its straight ones, Farrow says, “We stopped being separate members of the audience and became a congregation ourselves.”
Of course, that’s just one man—and one play. How exactly are these tiny theatrical productions expected to have any effect on the huge problems and institutions they’re addressing? “It is a bit of David versus Goliath, tackling homophobia this way,” admits Morgan. But he says audience reaction to each small production has a long reach because “evidence shows that the social networking in black communities is strong, and people learn that way. That’s how HIV information travels, and that’s how movements start.”
Amen, says Andre Lancaster, Damien’s young HIV positive director. “Theater is the most effective way I know to begin changing our communities into safe emotional and physical space for us to make conscious, healthy decisions,” he says. Working with NYU’s School of Public Service and the New York State Black Gay Network, he recently launched Freedom Train Productions, a residency for black playwrights that will create plays “to combat HIV in the black LBGT community.”
Meanwhile, A Love Like Damien’s, which was written by Andrea Davis, will return to New York for a month beginning November 10 at the HERE arts center.