Despite consistently getting work in Chicago’s mainstream theaters, actor Byron Stewart often dreaded going to auditions. “I really hated not letting people know that I was gay,” he says. “As a black man you have to come off as a strong macho man–you’re auditioning to be cast in that role.”

So last October Stewart founded A Real Read, a black gay performance ensemble that addresses such issues as homophobia, gay relationships, and negative stereotypes about black gays.

“Denial is what has been killing us,” says Stewart, who’s also an HIV/AIDS educator. “Homosexuality in the black community is still in the closet. This has a huge impact with HIV and AIDS in the black community.”

Stewart got the idea for A Real Read three years ago, after attending a writing workshop conducted by the Pomo Afro Homos, a black gay performance troupe whose critically acclaimed play Fierce Love was running at Randolph Street Gallery. Some of the poems he wrote during the workshop were later published in BlackLines, and Stewart worked with the publication to organize open-mike poetry readings. The readings received an enthusiastic response and eventually became a monthly event at the lesbian club Paris Dance.

From this talent pool of writers, actors, and spoken-word artists, A Real Read emerged. Since then the ensemble has performed at the National Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference, held recently in Los Angeles, and in June it will open the Pride Performance Series at Bailiwick Repertory.

A Real Read performs this Saturday at the Chicago Black Gay Unity Conference, sponsored by the group Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays. Featured speakers include Keith Boykin, executive director of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, and Kenneth Reeves, a former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and currently a city council member there. The conference takes place from 8 AM to 5 PM at the University of Illinois’ Chicago Illini Union, 828 S. Wolcott. Registration is $25, $20 in advance. People between the ages of 15 and 25 can preregister for free by calling 312-413-8307. For other information, call 312-409-4917.

–Derrick Mathis

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Byron Stewart by Randy Tunnell.