by Richard Dodds
Maybe it is true that you can't go home again, but Brian Freeman has been enjoying buzzing the grounds of the old neighborhood. He is the director of, and actor in, Fierce Love, a "remix" of the seminal 1991 work of the Pomo Afro Homos that he co-authored with Djola Branner and the late Eric Gupton. The new edition opens this week at New Conservatory Theatre Center in association with AfroSolo.
The stage mosaic about black gay life put the SF group – its name a shorthand for postmodern African American homosexuals – on an international map where the troupe burned brightly, if briefly, with a series of works about a theatrically neglected subject. Freeman hadn't expected that he would be returning to Fierce Love, but a request that he perform a 10-minute excerpt at a National Performance Network gathering led to a full-scale revival that traveled to five cities last year under the NPN banner.
San Francisco was not part of the tour, but Freeman couldn't imagine that Fierce Love (remix) would not be seen in the city of its birth. Its original home venue, Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, is long gone, but NCTC was eager to add it to its season as a non-subscription special. "For this cast and production, this is probably the end," Freeman said, "but I know better than to say 'never.'"
After all, the new production bloomed unexpectedly from the invitation to present a 10-minute excerpt, and the original production hardly arrived on a wave of anticipation. What had first inspired Freeman and his colleagues was a hole they saw in the social dialogue, especially in San Francisco's Castro District, where the faces of both the celebrants of gay liberation and the victims/mourners of a ravishing plague were mainly white.
"The show was really created in a void," Freeman said last week. "There was gay theater, there was black theater, and there was an occasional character in a white play or an African American play who was a gay man. For black queers of color, it was one of the first times to come into the collective-consciousness of a theater, to hear their own voices in a public space."
The original collaborators created a collection of scenes, sketches, monologues, and songs that they themselves performed. "Although we intended to create a piece for the community that it came from, it very quickly became popular with all kinds of communities," Freeman said.
The material that makes up Fierce Love (remix) has been tweaked but not fundamentally altered from the original show that was subtitled Stories from Black Gay Life. "It's still very much of the moment when we created it," Freeman said, "but not every joke is still funny 20 years later."
(Photo: Courtesy NCTC)
And there are times when history, be it pop cultural or gravely social, needs explaining for audiences who may have been playing in sandboxes when Fierce Love was born. Freeman is using projected video to help in that process. "The first scene is this weird collision between ACT UP and the movie-critic characters Blaine and Antoine from In Living Color. Video is a quick and easy way to locate all that."
There were also musical moments that needed some tuning. "We had a rap number in the original show which was about the ridiculousness of there being gay rap, and now there is a genre called homo hop," Freeman said. "So we had a homo hop artist named Kevin 'Kaoz' Moore do a rewrite of the song, and the new performers actually have the skills to do it for real."
Thandiwe Thomas DeShazor, Duane Boutte, and Rashad Pridgen make up the new cast, and Freeman himself makes several cameo appearances. In the original production, each of the creators developed monologues drawn from their own experiences, and Freeman's most prominent appearance in the new version is a recreation of that monologue. "I do a story called Sad Young Man, and the title is taken from a song from my childhood that had very queer-coded lyrics," Freeman said. "I found it on a very obscure Johnny Mathis record, and the sound designer finally found a copy we could use from a record dealer in Europe."
When the new production made its debut last year at Boston's Theater Offensive, original Pomo member Djola Branner, now a faculty member at Amherst's Hampshire College, was in the audience. "He found it very emotional to see the show again so many years later," Freeman said. "He kind of lost it in places, especially during the monologue that he wrote. It was based on people he knew, and many of those people are no longer with us."
Freeman had a different kind of deep-seated response to the Boston engagement. "Theatre Offensive produced the show in Roxbury, where I was born," he said. "They used the Hibernian Hall where my mom used to have social dances with her ladies groups. I got very emotional about it."
Audience reactions, or at least how they are openly displayed, have varied greatly from city to city. "In Boston we got a lot of loud lesbians, so it turned into a kind of call-and-response thing. When we were in Burlington, VT, the crowds were older and whiter, but they were really loving the politics of the piece. And then in Washington, D.C., the audiences were heavily black men, and it was close to what the original audiences were like. It threw the cast a little bit just because people were so zoned into the stuff. That's when it felt like Fierce Love really had its homecoming."