After the lights dimmed, the familiar hum began as four men of color came on the stage. They stood in a circle, humming and snapping fingers, swaying back and forth. Then, one by one, each introduced us to the evening to come, an evening of storytelling.
I first saw Pomo Afro Homos perform in 1990 or 91. There were three: Brian Freeman, Djola Branner, and Eric Gupton. Their group broke onto the scene at a time when Black and Gay exploded all over. Anthologies told our stories. Music told our stories. Movies told our stories. The Pomos brought our stories, “some of our stories,” as Brian introduced the evening, to the stage. I was out at the time, but still fairly new to the whole gay thing. The Pomos helped to fill in some of the gaps. Indeed, I can say that their work informed and influenced my own. Through their storytelling, I unlocked hidden corners of my own past, and learned words with which to tell my own tales.
So it was quite a treat to see them on stage again last weekend. Djola Branner is now a professor in Massachusetts. Eric Gupton has sadly passed on. Other past members, including Friend & Poet Marvin K. White, have moved on to other projects. Brian Freeman has assembled a new group — Duane Boutté, Thandiwe Thomas DeShazor, and Rashad Pridgen — to perform a revised edition of the Pomos’ first show called “Fierce Love – Remix.”
I remember some of the classic skits. “Men on Mens” took the Wayan Brothers sketch from “In Living Color” and showed them how to really camp it up. Instead of rating films, they rated men, until an ultra-radical militant black homo charged the stage to challenge them to join his revolution. I think this sketch caused more laughter than any other back in the day, and even now, long after “In Living Color” has left the small screen, the sketch still lit the house. My rating remains unchanged: Two Snaps Up.
Identity, then and now, forms the show’s central theme. In particular, many of the skits revolve around alienation and how one can be made to feel too black to be gay or too gay to be black. And sometimes, one can be too different to comfortably fit in any community. And what community is it? Is it the black gay community? Or is it gay black community? Or is it the same gender loving community? Or is it. . . It’s easy to fall into the trap of labeled identities, and feel like a minority within a minority within a minority when one does not subscribe to the memes or behaviors of a given group. More than anything else, I can relate to this. Labels and I have a tenuous relationship. I don’t even like wearing name tags at parties or conventions.
One skit involved a dude rocking out to metal music. He stops and says something to the effect, “What? A black gay guy can’t be into heavy metal?” I clapped loud and hard at that. Because 30 years ago, in high school, that person was me. I think I was maybe one of two black folks at my integrated school that listened to metal (KMET, the Mighty Met!). Though at the time I didn’t fully comprehend my attraction to men in lycra or tight leather. And sadly, I never went to shows. Who knows who I may have met? My first date, perhaps?
Identity can mess up a person’s head, leading them to psychoanalyze themselves to death. Which is what happens towards the end of the show, when one young man drifts from place to place, in effect searching for himself. He starts at a hysterically PC college undergrad group, where each member puts down the other with a barrage of obtuse psychobabble. (As a blah-blah-blah (fill in the appropriate identity group) I believe that you are oppressing me with your blah-blah-blah-blah…) He leaves that scene and drifts from one unsatisfying club to another, still psychoanalyzing away, until he meets another young man who keeps his analysis of the clubs refreshingly brief. Eventually, they find their groove, and others to groove with.
It’s a hopeful message to end on: You will eventually find yourself and others to hang with. And the best way to accomplish this is to forego the labels, and the baggage attached to them, and just groove. That’s what Duke Ellington called Beyond Category, a state we should all strive for. Pomo Afro Homos are absolutely Beyond Category.
If you’re in the SF Bay Area, you can catch the Pomos at the New Conservatory Theatre through October 28 in a limited engagement. Run, don’t walk, and check it out.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.