Saturday, July 28, 2007

Black LGBT Theater, passin' it on...

If you have some San Francisco in your background you've got to have heard of the Pomo Afro Homos (Post Modern African/Afro American Homosexuals), the black gay performance trio (1991-94) that was the hit of Josie's Juice Joint and Cabaret, back before gentrification wiped that place and others like it off the map (why do people move into a neighborhood they fell in love with as a visitor, then insist on changing it's most unique elements when they become a resident? Is it the classic romantic declaration "I love you, now change!" rendered as an urban planning strategy?). (pictured l-r: Eric Gupton, Brian Freeman, Djola Branner)

Named by cultural theorist Kobena Mercer (before he returned to the UK permanently), the Pomo Afro Homos were formed in 1991 by actor Brian Freeman, dancer/choreographer Djola Branner, and dancer/actor/singer Eric Gupton. The three performers/writers were motivated by the glaring absence of portrayals of black gay life as they knew it (as opposed to an Advocate Men pictorial, uh, for example) Their best know works are probably Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life, and Dark Fruit. When Eric Gupton departed, poet/performer Marvin K. White (pictured right) became their newest member. The Pomos, as folks fondly nicknamed them, toured major theaters in the U.S. and internationally to great acclaim, standing ovations, and sold-out shows (so you didn't have to be in Cali to see them). The intelligent and complex humanity and humor of their work spoke to people from a range of backgrounds. While LGBT folks may have loved them something fierce they had a loyal and repeat audience of a mix of people (yep, I had a t-shirt which became so worn out and faded, regrettably I had to let it go). The Pomos continued forward until the mid-90s when the performers went their separate ways.

Brian Freeman, who had been a long-time member of the performance-activist San Francisco Mime Troupe prior his Pomo Afro Homos tenure continued writing and performing, appearing in Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman (1996), and writing and performing Civil Sex (1997/2000), a one-man show he later re-staged as a three-act play based on the life of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. His latest work, Here and There (2007), focuses on the politics of AIDS in South Africa, through life of queer AIDS activist Simon Tseko Nkoli. Marvin K. White, who has become best know for his poetry, also continues to perform, work as a community arts organizer, and has published two LAMBDA Literary Award nominated books of poetry, his work has also been widely anthologized. White is also (say it with me now) a Cave Canem Fellow, and has taught writing in a number of venues. Sadly Eric Gupton passed away due to complications from AIDS on 30 April 2003, at the age of 43. Author Keith Boykin writes of his passing here.
Djola Branner also continued performing, relocating to Minneapolis for a time, writing a number of one-act plays, and garnering a number of awards. He also published a book of poetry, and toured and recorded his solo performance work, Mighty Real: A Tribute to Sylvester.

Recently Branner, along with talented playwright Zina Camblin, facilitated a play development workshop for freedom train productions' first group of Resident Playwrights in Development. freedom train was founded in 2006 and is dedicated to promoting "new work written by up-and-coming Black playwrights. All of our plays feature Black LGBT hero and shero characters." While I'm not a big fan of the potential "positive image" stipulation implicit in that mission statement, I'm still really excited to see an organization dedicated to mentoring a new generation of playwrights of African descent, and the recognition that making connections between different generations of theater artists is imperative to the continued creative production of African American playwrights. And if I needed confirmation, I heard playywright Lynn Nottage say as much at a presentation last year.

Along with providing artist residencies, freedom train also produces FREE staged readings of the workshopped plays:
FIRE! Plays in Development that Matter 5 Plays by 5 Emerging LGBT Playwrights, All FREE!

Wednesdays & Thursdays, 1-30 August 2007

The schedule (full descriptions can be found here):

Opening Night, August 1st & August 2nd:
Are Women Human?
by Nick Mwaluko
Director: Alicia Dhyana House

August 8 - 9th:
by Andre Lancaster
Director: Christopher Burris

August 15 - 16th:
Steal Away
by Andrea E. Davis
Director: C. Sala Hewitt

August 22 - 23rd:
by yvonne fly onakeme etaghene
Director: Gloria Bigelow

August 29 - 30th:
by Jesse Cameron Alick
Director: Andrew K. Russell

Opening Night: August 1st!
And Every Following Wednesday and Thursday in August 2007
8/1, 8/2, 8/8, 8/9, 8/15, 8/16, 8/22, 8/23, 8/29, and 8/30

@ South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford Street in Brooklyn
All Stage Readings are free and begin at 7pm.
Google map here

Endnote: Summer 2007, Djola Branner joined the faculty at Hampshire College's Theatre program. Congratulations, Professor Branner.

Endnote II: Why is this post so dang long?! Well, Michelle Materre got me thinking about documentation of people of color performing artists. Pomo Afro Homos is one of those cultural phenomenons about which a lot of people from a certain arts background may have knowledge. However, I don't even know if there are videos of their performances. With the exception of Marvin K. White none of the former members has a website which makes tracking their history that much harder, unfortunately making their presence more ephemeral.


At 4:54 PM, Anonymous A. Lancaster said...


nice blog! would love to chat the train up more with you. i think probably we are on the same page about heroes and sheroes actually.

hero is a very charged word that brings to mind certain individualistic, western traditions and cultural symbols, no doubt.

with our work at the Train, though, our writers at the very core are charged with writing plays with non-traditional heroes and sheroes: Black LGBT. And perhaps, more up your alley, are given free range to present whatever fallible, gritty, imperfect hero, shero they would like to give the main stage.

of course in times, when Blacks, LGBTs, and Black LGBTS (!) are being hit hard by the Right, HIV, glass ceilings, the war (i could go on...), throw a lil positivity too won't hurt nobody none, right? ;)

i think as a body of work, our 5 resident playwrights with works currently in production at fire!, have constructed a complicated image of who and what s/heros and s/hero construction is all about.

queer and racial studies, makes this all a pretty "easy" task for our writers to embark on!

again, I have much more to say feel free to reach me at andre@...


p.s. Djola rocks!

At 10:40 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

Andre, thanks for your comments and discussion of Freedom Train's mission and vision of "s/heroes." I hope the series is getting a great response!

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous jeanUlrick D said...

Yes I believe there are indeed videos of the Pomos that exist. I think Brian(Freeman) confirmed that some time ago when I saw him last.
Bravo and for covering these many things. and thank you for also covering the Color Line. We hope to see you at the Brooklyn Museum's "Infinite island" Exhibit starting 31Aug.
Best regards from Berlin jeanUlrick D.

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