Pomo Afro Homos

at Randolph Street Gallery

The dozen vignettes in Pomo Afro Homos’ Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life, presented a couple weeks ago at Randolph Street Gallery, are uncompromisingly African American, uncompromisingly queer, and still remarkably universal. “These are some of our stories,” Djola Bernard Branner tells us during the opening, an aching a cappella gospel number that lays the groundwork for the show.

In Fierce Love–“fierce” used both as slang for “fabulous” as well as the more usual definition of “intense”–there are no absolutes, political or personal. “We are an endangered species,” Branner says. He’s talking about being gay and being black but also about the fragile condition of being human. The wonder here is that, even though the Pomos speak to and for black gay men, as an audience–no matter our own demographics–we can take what we need. There’s enough to go around.

Fierce Love is about anger without raging or flailing, about morality without righteousness, about self-love without propaganda, and about empowerment without didacticism. This show is not intended to explain or educate, and yet it is self-explanatory, even educational. If we don’t get it all, it’s OK; it’s safe to have and to ask questions.

San Francisco-based, the Pomos are exceptional actors, singers, and dancers. While the material in Fierce Love has plenty of heat on its own, it’s fueled by these guys’ talents. They have a sure sense of timing, a knack for nuance, and a charismatic presence.

Fierce Love begins with “Men on Mens,” a takeoff on the “Men on Film” segment from In Living Color. It’s a crucial beginning because it immediately tackles the most well known black gay male stereotypes in America, the simpering Antoine and Blaine. In the Pomos’ work, the two are confronted by a member of ACT BLACK, who challenges them to acknowledge their sexuality and roots. At first this sketch is an easy, even obvious poke at nellie stereotypes and ACT UP-style activists, but what it does is flesh out the extremes represented by those two caricatures. The Pomos don’t deny Blaine and Antoine. But the message is clear: they ain’t all there is, either.

“I Don’t Want to Hear It,” a monologue by group founder Brian Freeman, looks at a darker element of black gay male sexuality: the publicly heterosexual man–complete with wife, kids, and homophobia–who goes off for a “taste of the other side” and never acknowledges his own actions as homosexual. By defining what his character does as an extension of the macho sexual persona, Freeman’s critique hits not only homophobia but sexism. The piece is funny but scary, sarcastic but not without sympathy. Like most of the Pomos’ work, it balances the absurd, the impossible, with the cruelest reality.

The first third of the show, which seems primarily concerned with the process of coming out, ends with Freeman’s “Sad Young Man,” a loosely autobiographical monologue in which he comically describes a life of alienation. Here Freeman calls forth a host of influences, from Angela Davis to Johnny Mathis, which help define who he is as a black gay man.

The middle section of Fierce Love offers a funny, even steamy look at the gay community. But it’s also the most intense in its self-criticism. With these pieces Freeman and his cohorts reject many of the stereotypes imposed upon African Americans in the gay and lesbian community and reaffirm their sexuality (including, in a way, the right to be eroticized as black men, if they so choose). “Good Hands,” a solo work by Eric Gupton, takes place in a back room and works up to a rather amazing orgasm (even better than Annie Sprinkle’s show-stopping finale a few months ago at Theatre Oobleck). Gupton’s wonderful the whole time, playing his character, then playing the audience, right up to the most unexpected of punch lines.

The final third of the show is about vision, beginning with an excerpt from James Baldwin’s last novel, Just Above My Head. Here the Pomos allow Baldwin, both gay radical and reactionary, to explore growing up black and gay. “Silently Into the Night,” one of the least polished sketches, takes a look at the clash between a man’s birth family and his chosen gay family when he dies of AIDS. Finally, the sweet and poignant “Towards a Black Queer Rhythm Nation” brings it all together: the contradictions and inevitabilities of being black, male, and gay in contemporary America. These stories, as Branner tells us at the beginning and again at the end, “must be as strong as our ancestors, and twice as fierce.” In these hands, they are.