OHMA student Samantha Lombard (2018) reflects on E. Patrick Johnson’s theatrical representation of his narrators from oral history interviews he conducted as part of research for his book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South – An Oral History.
E. Patrick Johnson’s Workshop, From Field to Performance: Adapting Oral History and Ethnographic Field Research for the Stage, in part examined the importance of representation of the LGBTQIA community in media. Throughout Johnson’s childhood, he often felt that his story was not told. In addressing some of the challenges he felt as a gay Black man in the American South, he noted a culture of passive aggression permeating his childhood, as folks subtly (and at times not so subtly) let him know that being gay was somehow unacceptable. His identity was formed with a sense of ‘othering’ as people around him labeled gay men as “that way,” refusing to name homosexuality.
As oral historians listen to their narrators, they affirm that their stories matter. Johnson’s oral history interviews with Black gay men of the South informed his book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South – An Oral History, which he later adapted into a play and film. He was not initially planning to adapt his work into a play, noting, “I was more interested in creating an archive of life stories heretofore undocumented.” He had felt the pain of not having his stories heard or represented throughout his life. Over the course of his interviews, he realized, “The page could not capture the verbal cadences, verbal ticks, non-verbal cues and intimacy created through oral history performance.” I was taken aback when Johnson described his painstaking efforts to properly portray his narrators. He reminded me repeatedly about the extent to which representation matters. Johnson takes the time to practice their mannerisms and wears costumes that resemble their fashion choices. Throughout the play, he adjusts his accents and sports different accessories to manifest the idiosyncrasies of his narrators. He takes the time to represent as much of their beings as he can on stage, inherently insisting that their stories matter.
The concept of representation is multifaceted: representation of all groups within all facets of a society can lessen social inequalities. As scholars Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer and William Mishler state in their 2016 article, An Integrated Model of Women’s Representation, representation has interrelated dimensions, such as descriptive, referring to similarity between representatives and the represented, and symbolic, “referring to the represented’s feelings of being fairly and effectively represented.” When these forms of representation are realized for all groups, society is likely to be more equitable. Symbolic representation as defined here is important because it has the potential to engender acknowledgment, acceptance and moreover power to those who are named. Oral history can provide a means of representation, as it can promote understanding and compassion. It allows narrators the opportunity to tell their stories, which may be misrepresented or otherwise ignored within a larger society.
One of Johnson’s narrators, Charles, a.k.a Chastity, was apprehensive about seeing himself on stage, asking, “how will you portray me? Is it accurate?” At Club Cabaret in Hickory, North Carolina, Johnson performed for Chastity privately. He first consulted him about which earrings and which pink boa feather scarf he should wear in order to properly evoke Chastity. Johnson acted out some of Chastity’s monologues that included at times painful memories of his journey as a gay man who was once told that he was transgender. When Johnson was finished, Chastity broke down in tears. While watching, I was only thinking about how when Chastity was a child, he probably very rarely saw his identity reaffirmed on TV or otherwise in mass media.
Conversations in mainstream media and pop culture have begun to address the issue of misrepresentation, or lack of representation altogether of different groups. Filmmaker Rebecca Brand’s article in The Guardian about mainstream media representation, “’If She Can’t See It, She Can’t Be It’: Why Media Representation Matters,” notes that, “men outnumber women almost four to one in news and current affairs programmes,” and adds that it is important for young girls to see themselves in characters who play powerful roles in media. In her interview with Variety, Michelle Obama says, “It becomes important for the world to see different images of each other, so that we can develop empathy and understanding.”
Johnson’s methodology renders power to his narrators as his stage representations of them underscore that their lives and stories matter. Johnson was performing for a community of which he felt he was a part, and could therefore represent his narrators properly. As a woman, I find it empowering to see smart women who care about their education and work in different jobs on television. Johnson teaches us that it is not only representation in general that matters, but representation with accuracy and dignity.
Watch this Workshop and the other Workshops a part of OHMA’s Oral History and the Arts Workshop series on OHMA’s YouTube channel.
Samantha Lombard is an OHMA student and is one of OHMA’s Communications Fellows. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016 and is currently researching Yiddish-speaking immigrants in Boston.