Love (Can Sometimes Be) a Real Read

A Real Read

at Randolph Street Gallery,

December 12-14

By Justin Hayford

No one in the eight-person cast of the new African-American “lesbigaytrans” performance ensemble A Real Read left the stage during the two-hour Love (Can Sometimes Be) a Real Read. When not performing monologues or poetic sketches meant to give voice to the largely silenced realities of black gay life, the company members sat in a semicircle of chairs and watched their compatriots, supplying a steady stream of editorial “mm-hmmm”s, “all right”s and “I heard that”s. In effect the group became their own congregation–they hardly needed an audience.

The revival-meeting format favored by the group is at once its strongest asset and greatest drawback. With 20 pieces on the program, it’s easy to envision a performance that splinters into 20 unconnected vignettes. After all, being black, gay, and in love is hardly a unifying theme, given the multiplicity of experiences and points of view that category might include. And despite a general unwillingness to venture beyond middle-class life, A Real Read has cast a wide net in culling pieces for the show. C.C. Carter relates the tragicomic trauma of coming out to her mother, not knowing that her girlfriend had let the cat out of the bag via telephone five minutes earlier. Adopting an entirely different persona later, Carter relives the violent end of an abusive relationship. Lynnell S. Long bullies her way through leather bars in search of true love. Pat Mickey explains how being stoned all weekend gives her the fortitude to return to her ersatz heterosexual life during the week.

Most Chicago troupes presenting similar evenings of collected pieces overtheatricalize their performances, separating the selections with endless blackouts that force the audience to shift gears every five minutes and impede any momentum the show might otherwise develop. By contrast the pieces in this production flow into and out of one another; as each concludes, the performer simply returns to his or her seat in the congregation, usually amid a few joyful noises or knowing glances, and the next performer steps up. A sustained communal energy keeps everything aloft. It’s rather like an informal two-hour church service–albeit one that takes in stride references to boy-boy fucking.

But the company’s revival-meeting format also seems to encourage an unfortunate confessional tendency in the performers. They’ve given themselves permission to stroll through just about any personal crisis or revelation no matter how prosaic, as though any aspect of black gay life were stageworthy (whether these stories are autobiographical or fictional is left intentionally ambiguous). It seems nearly every performer here takes a stab at the “I met him/her in a bar and we went home and fucked and I found myself” genre, which pervades so much gay performance these days. More often than not, these and other stories are told in unremarkable, formulaic prose: “He was not only beautiful on the outside, he was beautiful on the inside.” “The fit was just right, tight and hot and juicy.” “You’re warm and tender, thoughtful and considerate, the perfect blend of masculinity and femininity.”

For much of the time, especially during the show’s first half, the performers mush about in a vague world of prefab emotions, a world seemingly created by committee; by and large their achingly good intentions get in the way of articulating complicated realities. In their self-aggrandizing introduction they describe their work as “remarkably universal,” but in truth much of the work is remarkably generic. The group needs to push beyond the heartfelt complacency that often renders its world featureless.

When A Real Read does reach beyond the predictable and familiar, the results are engrossing. Carter’s coming-out story is riveting in large part because she finds surprising, contradictory impulses to pull her through; the terror and shame she feels as her mother collapses drives her not to despair but to open defiance. Company founder Byron Stewart steals the show by reliving a nine-month relationship as a pregnancy–or, more accurately, a nine-month process of labor and delivery–ending in his birth as an independent person who doesn’t need a boyfriend.

More than anything else, A Real Read needs to make room for ambivalence in its worldview. At almost every point in the show, it’s clear what’s right and what’s wrong, which sentiments we should agree with and which we should abjure. This approach may unify a congregation, but in performance it’s preaching to the choir.

In my review of Coffee With David Hauptschein and Joseph Fosco (December 5), I mentioned last summer’s “comedy convention” at ImprovOlympic. While ImprovOlympic hosted the show, it was produced by the Prop Theatre.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.