Pomo Afro Homos

at Randolph Street Gallery, through September 26


Eric Leonardson and Ensemble

at N.A.M.E., September 17 and 18

Pomo Afro Homos (“Post Modern African American Homosexuals”) have sold out all their performances here, and it’s not hard to see why: Dark Fruit, about the experiences of black gay men, is testimony to the way sharing personal histories can enlighten the community at large. Brian Freeman, Marvin K. White, and Djola Bernard Branner mine their experiences as outcasts from three separate American cultures: the African American community, the gay community, and the white heterosexual community. The result is a brand of performance art rife with irony and camp.

Dark Fruit is composed of seven segments running the gamut from poignant to satirical. The first, “Aunties in America,” is a tea party of three black gay actors from the plays Angels in America, Six Degrees of Separation, and La Cage aux Folles. This sketch, full of such bitchy statements as “Marlo Thomas is not the one,” emphasizes the isolation and marginalization of gay black actors and entertainers. “At least we have each other,” one says to another in the midst of their bitch fest.

“Black & Gay: a Psycho-Sex Study” is in the form of a lecture with slides of pie charts, strange graphs, and photographs lifted from gay erotic magazines; it’s based on an actual book from the 1960s of the same title. Freeman, dressed in a lab coat and holding a collapsible pointer, describes gay black careers–“hairdresser, interior decorator, ballet dancer”–as well as the percentage of African Americans within the gay culture, the percentage of African American gays who prefer white lovers, the percentage of white gay men who prefer African American lovers, and on and on. At times the lecture takes loopy, bizarre turns, sometimes accompanied by incongruous slide illustrations.

This decidedly goofy lecture is also bolstered by several dramatized vignettes: Freeman is always a white all-American, “gee whiz” sort of high school boy; White (his love interest) is the anguished, earnest “up from shanty town” African American; and Branner portrays a white female teacher who dangles a Booker T. Washington college scholarship before White, never letting him forget that he is her token black achiever. (After each vignette White and Branner stop suddenly and bow solemnly to the audience while Freeman races offstage, then back out in his lab coat to continue the lecture. Sometimes he gestures at the “actors” as though shooing them away.) These vignettes–a play within the play–work beautifully, showing how the dominant white culture, straight and gay alike, has condescendingly “tried out” integration–the ways in which African Americans are often used to assuage both white guilt and curiosity.

“Tasty,” told by White, is a story about a hardworking temporary office employee who has put on his “good Negro best” and is seduced by a “brother” who also happens to be a structural engineer. This story is poignant in the way the temporary worker is unwittingly exploited by his supervisor, who has “Wesley Snipes eyes.” It’s as though both of them have leapt into forbidden yet titillating territory, but one used his power, prestige, and sexuality to dominate and seduce, while the other is humiliatingly consumed and thrown away.

The most compelling piece of the evening is “Sweet Sadie,” enacted and told by Branner: he alternately portrays his mother and melts back into himself. A Freudian would have a field day with this piece. Branner’s performance is stellar–the way he moves and dances, the way he portrays himself as a quiet, chubby boy who liked to draw, the way he subtly gestures as his mother, now in her 70s and an Alzheimer’s patient. This is a magnificent study of the kind of ordinary things that happen when no one seems to be looking. Underlying it all are the pain, confusion, and loneliness that loving a narcissistic, cold woman caused this young boy, who has somehow overcome these early difficulties to become a creative, out-of-the-closet black gay man who can finally say the word “bitch.”

The set, costumes, lighting, props, and bits of business (such as the billowing smoke at the beginning) are understated (with the exception of the slides during the lecture) so that the audience focuses on the unfolding action, choreography, and text. Recorded pop songs like Chaka Kahn’s “I’m Every Woman” and Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” are used as segues between segments; the music is polished, but the songs aren’t significantly altered or collaged to make them more interesting: the original and often surprising action is thus in striking juxtaposition to the ho-hum music.

Their sold-out run at Randolph Street Gallery underlines not only the popularity of this San Francisco-based group but the interest of more mainstream audiences in hearing these stories, which have so far been the subject of only a handful of projects, such as the films Tongues Untied and Paris Is Burning and the videotape Looking for Langston. The discussion is overdue, and in the thoughtful, imaginative way the Pomo Afro Homos have approached these stories (“without regret,” as they say near the conclusion of their performance), they have given voice to a nearly silent minority.

Eric Leonardson’s Urban Archaeology, playing at N.A.M.E.’s new space, lacked the Pomo’s buoyant theatricality, yet it managed to hold the audience’s attention almost solely through the use of abstract recorded and live sound pastiches, accompanied by some subtle, sporadic, and downright strange stage action.

At the outset of the piece, as the audience sits in darkness, one hears footsteps approaching the performance space across the wooden gallery floor: a nice effect, though the footsteps could have been made crisper by attaching cleats to the shoes or by using remote microphones. Leonardson–a catlike, dark-haired man–walks to a generic white desk stage left and turns on a fluorescent lamp, warming the stage to a glow. He sits at the desk and flicks on a word processor, then begins speaking into a microphone: “Return . . . ,” and we hear a beep, as though he’s hit a margin or a return key, then he says, “Underline, shift.”

While he continues to chant such words, one begins to see the other members of the ensemble. Hamid Drake plays drums, and Michael Zerang’s on percussion (which consists of found objects such as paint cans and odd tubes attached to a garment rack with wire). Kimberly Bruce, an ethereal young woman, walks through the maze of old phonograph players, keyboards, mixers, amps, speakers, and endless cords that litter the stage and throws coins across the floor in no particular rhythm. In front Spencer Sundell is handling the mixers, and at the far back Dylan Posa seems to be noodling on something–but it’s hard to see or hear what. Again we hear from Leonardson, still at the desk, “Space, space, return, return . . . ” The lighting changes and everything becomes brighter and lighter.

Just as it begins to seem the performance is about young men fooling around with machines, and just as one is about to give up paying attention because the droning recorded sounds mixed with odd thwacks, bangs, and disembodied words seem to be going nowhere, Leonardson gets up from the desk, walks to stage center, and picks up an electric guitar. At this point it gets exciting. He begins to strum the guitar, bow it, and finally talks into the neck while he grasps and strums the bottom half. In a parody of the heat of passion, he gives the neck of the guitar a loud kiss–a kiss out of a Warner Brothers cartoon, as if Bugs Bunny were smacking Elmer Fudd.

Throughout we hear all sorts of recorded and live sporadic sounds–of a screen door opening and shutting, the wind blowing, synthesized bubbles and percolations, a clang, the thud of a palm on a drum, something like a motorcycle or a biplane. Isolated and apparently random, these sounds are somewhat annoying–until they’re given a rhythmic context. Eventually, dimly, there’s a galloping of hands on drums, which becomes increasingly louder: Drake and Zerang in some of the most poetic, beautiful drumming I’ve ever heard.

Urban Archaeology is not an easy piece to watch–I would have preferred to lie down in pitch darkness and simply listen to the complex and interesting sounds. Somehow it was difficult to witness the performance. Perhaps the problem is that when a performer moves about the stage one anticipates the next bit of business, whereas if one were lying comfortably in darkness the sounds would take over effortlessly. An alternative would have been to provide light and pitch darkness in alternation, highlighting certain actions–like Leonardson’s “making love” to his guitar–and eliminating from the viewer’s visual landscape less significant ones, such as his wandering from one part of the space to the other.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jill Posener.