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THEATER | Twin Cities Black Pride soars with "Fierce Love"
Fierce Love is the kind of theater experience I wish wasn’t just playing for one weekend, because it’s exactly the kind of theater I want a chance to tell all my friends about, so they can have the chance to go and experience it for themselves. The organization Twin Cities Black Pride is making their first foray into producing theater with Fierce Love. They state in the program that they hope this is just the first of many productions to come. After seeing this one, I heartily concur with that statement. We need more theater like Fierce Love.
“We are an endangered species, but our story must be told.”
Of course, they’ve stacked the deck in their favor here by choosing the right material and putting it in the hands of the right director, who then gathered a great ensemble of performers. Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life is a collection of stories from the theater group the Pomo Afro Homos (Djola Branner—who lived among us for many years and is now out east—with Brian Freeman and the late Eric Gupton). The Pomo Afro Homos toured the country with this show in the early 90s, but this is the first time it has touched down in the Twin Cities in the new century. It is just as vibrant, hilarious and important as it was when it was first performed, and the sold-out audience the night I saw it gave it a well-deserved standing ovation.
Director Harry Waters, Jr. got the evening rolling with a most entertaining pre-show speech that concluded with an audience sing-along. I didn’t know the tune, but much of the audience did, and joined in with great enthusiasm. This led right into the musical introduction of the ensemble, entering not only from backstage, but all corners of the house, bearing candles. Each man took turns in the invocation as his fellows sang along in the background. They returned to this configuration and these words at the end, bringing the evening full circle. In between these evocative bookends (with finger snaps high in the air), the writers have concocted a clever cross-section of just a fraction of the black gay experience. (After all, whose experience can ever be summed up in all its complexity in a show that only lasts an hour? But the Pomo Afro Homos certainly provided this company with a compelling blueprint for the attempt.)
In one of the most successful scenes of the evening, entitled “Sad Young Man,” in which Jason Jackson brings out a trunk full of “cultural baggage,” he pinpoints non-black members of the audience to reassure them throughout with the mantra, “It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
But the wonder and joy of Fierce Love is that even a white guy like me can understand (just a little bit), because this production, these actors, and these characters invite me in. They allow me to observe them, and gain a greater understanding of them. In the end, we’re all just human beings looking for love and acceptance, both from others and ourselves. This is who we are.
I didn’t recognize Jackson’s scene afterward in the program at first, because he seemed like anything but a sad young man. Certainly, he had his ups and downs, but ultimately he got where he needed to go. And this scene was chock full of some of the evening’s most telling and amusing lines. It’s a great showcase for an actor, and Jackson made sure he got the full mileage out of it.
In fact, the same could be said of every member of the ensemble. They had great material and they rose to the occasion, making the most of the opportunity. The applause between each scene was full and hearty. It’s the kind of evening that reminds you what theater does best, actors connect with a living breathing audience in the same space. They feed off each other’s energy, they give back as good as they get. The atmosphere in that room was full of so much love and good humor, it was sad to see it come to an end.
Whether it was a militant black culture warrior (Earnest Simpkins, also the producer) taking to task the effeminate gay clowns of In Living Color’s infamous “Men on Film” sketch (Jackson again, and Cedric “Cmurf” Harris III), or a “straight” man (Kevin “Kaoz” Moore) with a lady and kids at home, justifying his men on the side, these characters didn’t come pre-judged by the writers. They’re just presenting the world as they see it, and actors inhabit that world, and we get to engage it on our own terms. The complexity breeds both humor and ongoing discussion.
An opera queen (Malik Irby) tries unsuccessfully to hail a cab, and is visited by the spirit of one of his gay dancing African tribal ancestors (Erik “E.O.” Ellison), which sends him (overheated) back inside to his partner for a change in the night’s scheduled events. Ellison returns again for two solo stints that show off his tremendous range—a side-splitting and jaw-dropping account of a night in the backroom looking for sex, to which even a fully engaged audience member cried out at the end, “Oh, hell no!”; and a self-proclaimed Afrocentric Homosexual, looking for a man just as dark black as he is. An energetic (and funny) rap about the code of bandanas in the back pants pocket, finds its opposite later in the evening when a man (Simpkins again) watches his good friend die and then must watch as the friend’s funeral is hijacked by his fundamentalist family. The man is joined by other friends in finding a way to memorialize the fallen man in a way he would have appreciated, among his chosen family rather than his less accepting biological one.
There’s a lot more crammed into a very full and entertaining hour of stage time. Everyone deserves mention, including the others in the ensemble (Mike Ernst, James V. Davis, and Cortez Riley), the choreographer Leah Nelson, Mike Wangen for his lighting design, and stage manager Ki Seung Rhee and his crew Joe Szathmary and Michelle Barnes for keeping the whole thing moving right along. And of course to Pillsbury House Theatre for playing host to the event.
The Twin Cities Black Pride Celebration isn’t until September 9th through the 12th, but this evening of Fierce Love felt like a wonderful prologue. And just as Gay Pride shouldn’t just be a weekend in June but something that happens all year round, it’s nice to see Twin Cities Black Pride spreading the love around the calendar as wellEvents like Fierce Love are a great way to get everyone in a room together, talking about things that matter, and sharing an uplifting and powerful experience. I can’t wait to see what’s next. For more information, check out www.tcblackpride.org.
©2010 Matthew A. Everett