By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
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Poet, playwright, and performer Djola Bernard Branner is preaching about Sodom and Gommorah. His head is thrown back, his eyes closed in religious ecstasy. He's channeling the sound and fury of some long-forgotten Baptist preacher.
"And say Amen!" The walls of Patrick's Cabaret shiver as the right reverend delivers his exhortation. Half a dozen men gathered in a circle around him murmur amens and umhumpfs. "It's not too late to get out of Satan's bed," he rails. "You can choose the path of God. If you want to know this secret" -- yes, Lord -- "if you want to know his love" -- more amens -- "you can back up! And return to the road of the righteous!" Branner winds up for the big finish, "For the froward is ABOMINATION, but his SECRET is with the RIGHTEOUS!"
The irony hangs thick as Branner, who is gay, delivers the words. His tone suggests mere bombast, and the other actors sitting around him double over with laughter as Branner finishes the tirade. But the sermon, which closes out the first act of Branner's play Homos in the House, is as painful in its judgments as Branner's performance is funny. And when this dramatic look at the troubled intersection of mainline religion, homosexuality, and black culture premieres Feb. 13 at Intermedia Arts, Branner hopes audiences will be equally amused and uncomfortable.
Branner hopes Homos in the House will push some buttons. He wants the play to provoke people, much as writing it challenged his own thinking. "Writing this play gave me the opportunity to explore the silence that surrounds homosexuality in the African-American community," says the 41-year-old, reflecting on his endeavor. "And I think personally that the silence is related to Christian ethics. The play was an opportunity to examine how the church has used Christianity -- or the interpretation of Christianity -- to oppress people. Not just gay and lesbian people, but lots of different types of people."
Working with $25,000 in grants from various arts funders, and in-kind support from the Walker Art Center, Intermedia Arts, and Patrick's Cabaret, Branner has assembled a talented cast and crew, including actors Daniel Alexander Jones, Roger Syng, Marc Payne, Joe Wilson, Ahanti Young, and Greg Smith, as well as choreographer Baraka de Soleil, set designer Seitu Jones, and costumer Lyle Johnson. Rap, hip-hop, and traditional gospel mingle in the play's musical score, augmented in this production by the MCC Gospel Choir, under the direction of Robert Robinson. A student of Haitian dance, Branner also has infused myriad cues for movement and dance throughout the play.
The playwright's humor, as evidenced in his autobiographical performances Sweet Sadie, a piece about his mother, and Forever Hold Your Piece, about his marriage to cabaret namesake and local impresario Patrick Scully, permeates the script. "I've been given this wonderful gift," Branner says. "I get to carry out my own creative vision." But Branner is no Hercules of the Arts: He's decided to hand over the directorial reins to New York director and playwright Carlos Murillo, whose Near Death Experiences with Leni Reifenstahl played a few years ago at the Red Eye Collaboration in Minneapolis.
Unlike much of Branner's previous work, Homos in the Houseis not directly autobiographical. Set in the early 1990s at a black college in the South, the play centers on a budding romance between two gay men: a smart AIDS activist who's proud of his sexuality, and a younger, more conservative student who's just emerging from the closet. When the college president rebukes the activist for talking openly about homosexuality, the pair find themselves struggling to create and maintain identities that both embrace and reject elements of black, gay, and religious traditions. Racism is a distant theme compared to the immediate specter of homophobia in the African-American community. HIV/AIDS education and prevention in particular have been hindered in the black community, Branner indicates, by homophobia. Adding the stigma of gayness to the indignities borne by black people in America is double jeopardy, or as one of the play's characters puts it: "Adding the indemnity of gayness to the indemnity of blackness is, is ... is suicide." Looking to identify the primary purveyor of such sentiments, Branner cast a critical eye in the direction of organized religion.
The playwright's own college experience was, in fact, vastly different from that portrayed in Homos in the House. Born to a father who made a living as a house painter and occasional composer and a mother who worked as a structural assembler for McDonnell-Douglas, Branner grew up "a virtual single child" in the working-class black neighborhoods of south central Los Angeles during the 1960s. The closest of Branner's three siblings were in their 20s by the time he was born, and after his parents divorced -- the boy was 5 -- he spent most of his time alone, a latch-key kid who snacked and watched television after school as he waited for Mom to come home. The episodes of Bewitched and Green Acres, Gilligan's Island and Marcus Welby, M.D. rolled by. Maybe more than anything, Branner says, television shaped his sense of drama. "As a kid, I certainly didn't see many plays," he chuckles. "But I watched a hell of a lot of TV."