Double Take

Being black and gay is seen by some as double . But playwright Djola Branner disputes that notion, And his play, Homos in the House, which premieres this month, shows how such attitudes create stigma, erect barriers, and inhibit HIV/AIDS prevention

At 17, Branner left for Santa Cruz College, a "hippie college" in northern California. Less than 5 percent of the student population was African-American, and for a kid who'd grown up in all-black neighborhoods, it came as "a shock." His uneasiness about his weight and appearance grew; and now his race attracted attention. Still, he found friends, and at age 19, he came out as gay.

In 1978, he graduated from Santa Cruz with a degree in psychobiology, a field his mother had nudged him toward. "I was convinced by her that I could never make a living as an artist," Branner recalls. "She wanted me to be a doctor. I thought, 'Oh, that sounds boring. I like animals, maybe I could be a veterinarian.'"

To Mama's disappointment, however, Branner moved to San Francisco after graduation and bounced from job to job: research-lab worker, waiter, city bus driver, factory worker. He eventually returned to school, taking up the subjects at which he had excelled all along: dance, drama, art, music, poetry. He studied Haitian dance; he listened to Billie Holiday and old jazz recordings; he read African-American literature; and he immersed himself in the culture of the Bay Area. He found a community of artists and performers -- some black, some gay.

In retrospect, perhaps the pivotal event in Branner's artistic career so far was his decision to join Pomo Afro Homos, a troupe of self-described "postmodern African-American homosexuals." Branner and fellow performers Eric Gupton and Brian Freeman established the group in 1990. Dishing over drinks at a Mission District coffeeshop, the three hatched a plan to produce a show about contemporary black gay issues, one that went beyond the portrayals of the TV hit In Living Color. Incorporating music, dance, and plenty of jokes, the trio drafted nine sketches to be presented at a one-night cabaret. The subject matter ranged from gang colors as metaphor, to AIDS and family issues, to the "Just Us Club," a group of three screaming queens with enough attitude for 30. The show, Fierce Love, was a smash. On opening night, they filled the house and turned people away.

The troupe added a month-long run of the show in San Francisco, then took their act on the road. For four years, Branner traveled with Pomo Afro Homos to colleges, clubs, cabarets, and theaters across the country, and even to London. The group's visit to Minneapolis in January 1994 marked the beginning of the end for Pomo Afro Homos, however. Branner met and fell in love with local actor and activist Patrick Scully. The ensuing courtship and marriage became fodder for their collaboration Forever Hold Your Piece, staged as recently as this fall, when Scully and Branner were negotiating a split.

Branner learned immensely from his work in Pomo Afro Homos. Freeman taught him how to write comedy, he says, and Gupton taught him how to take an audience and wrap them around his finger. It was a crazy but creative period in Branner's life: "I got stage experience," Branner says, "I got style and sass. And I got to see a lot of the world."

He also got the idea for Homos in the House. During a stop in Washington, D.C., a student and HIV/AIDS activist at a black college told them he was interested in bringing the troupe to his campus. The trio responded enthusiastically, but when they ran into him months later, he had bad news. School administrators had put the kabosh on his idea.

For Branner, it reeked of homophobia. And it smacked of a strain particularly prevalent in the black community. Branner knew it well. Pomo Afro Homos, for example, had played numerous venues before it was received by a black theater company. And that company, Branner notes, was in London. Shortly before, the producers of the Black Theater Festival, held annually in Winston-Salem, N.C., had contacted the group regarding an appearance. Pomo Afro Homos immediately sent a tape of their work, but no one from the festival ever called again. In fact, when Freeman followed up, the organizers gave him the run-around. "It appeared to be blatant homophobia," Branner says. "The ironic thing is, there were probably a lot of gay actors and performers at the festival. They just didn't say it." (In 1995, however, Branner performed Sweet Sadie at the gathering, becoming the first openly gay person to perform at the event.)

"Sometimes the hardest thing to criticize is your own house," Branner says of the group's reception in the African-American community. "And we went after everybody: black, white, gay, straight, wavy."

With Homos in the House, Branner takes a less strident approach. But his target is clear: homophobia. "The black community can be very homophobic," says Laurie Carlos, a local performance artist and an artistic fellow at the Penumbra Theater. "It's evident in the machismo, and in how many gay people get left out."

Homos cast member Joe Wilson says being queer is often the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to civil-rights discussions. "You've got the issue of race first," Wilson says, summarizing the attitudes he's heard. "To heap on top of that the idea of being gay, it's like a double scarlet letter. To heap on top of everything the idea of being a sissy, that's not something we're ready to cope with."

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