What's black and gay and playing on stages all over?
The Pomo Afro Homos, of course.
That's short for Postmodern African-American Homosexuals--a group of funny guys from San Francisco who, in less than four years, have gone from tiny Bay Area alternative spaces like Josie's Cabaret to major venues such as New York's Lincoln Center.
They make dramatic and satiric sketches about racism, homophobia and black gay life. Whether taking aim at the likes of super-swishy "In Living Color" film critics Blaine and Antoine, or traditional psychotherapy, or telling poignant coming-of-age tales, the Pomo Afro Homos confront tough questions with candor and style.
The group may not be a household name yet, but it's as hot as its targets are provocative. They'll bring "More Fabulous Fun Stories," an evening of trademark irreverence in a mixed comic-serious format, to Santa Monica on Aug. 18-21, as part of Highway's sixth annual festival of gay and lesbian performance and visual art.
It's just one whirl on a full dance card. Though one might expect Pomo Afro Homos' sensitive and difficult subject matter to create a booking nightmare, they've been much in demand lately. The young troupe has also been racking up the honors, including the prestigious Bessie Award, and been well-received in increasingly visible places.
Last December, the Pomo Afro Homos--founding members Brian Freeman, Eric Gupton, Djola Bernard Branner and additional performers--appeared on Comedy Central's "Out There," the cable channel's gay and lesbian comedy special. More recently, the group took the stage at New York's Lincoln Center for their second year in a row as part of the Serious Fun! festival.
They have toured their shows "Fierce Love" and "Dark Fruit" throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. And the Pomos, as they're affectionately called, also continue to play the smaller spots where they first honed their brazen satire.
Perhaps the only downside to the group's rapid rise is that it indicates there remains a need for their critique. Racism and homophobia--the great Pomo no-nos--do persist, and not just in mainstream heterosexual culture. They are, as the Pomos illustrate, present in the gay and African-American communities as well.
"Their work is important because they're telling vital black men's stories," says writer-performer Keith Antar Mason of the Hittite Empire, a Los Angeles-based all-male African American performance-art collective which performed on a London bill with the Pomo Afro Homos in October, 1993. "Homophobia in the black community is very real. (The Pomos) deal with silence, violence and AIDS, as we do, and they are great storytellers and great craftsmen. They should be heard."
Gupton, speaking by phone from Atlanta where the group recently was performing at the National Black Arts Festival, says, "Racism is never a fun topic. There's no easy way to talk about homophobia. Some people just can't take this stuff straight. Humor has always been a good way to talk about things that are difficult."
But once the resistance begins to crumble, the Pomos leave their mark. "There are usually people who are blown away that there is a reflection of their lives onstage," says Gupton. "Black gay people are not going away. And younger people should not have to throw themselves off the balconies of hotel rooms or murder themselves because they don't see their reflection anywhere."
The Pomos, who range in age from mid- to late-30s, first got together as a group in the Bay Area in November, 1990. Culturally speaking, it was just the right moment. "At that moment in time, it was a critical intersection," says Freeman, who had previously spent eight years performing with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. "There had been this rush of films--'Paris Is Burning,' 'Tongues Untied' and 'Truth or Dare' (which deal with black gay life) in a very awkward, manipulative way--and books about black gay writing, like 'Brother to Brother,' had come out."
I t wasn't just coincidence that Freeman, Branner and Gupton took up the subject of black gay identity. "We knew a lot of these other people doing this work," continues Freeman, who worked on the Marlon Riggs film "Tongues Untied," which sparked a backlash from the political and religious right because the documentary on gay black men received some funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. "Many of them were part of a group called Black Gay United in San Francisco. It's a very small network of people around the country doing this work, primarily writers but also artists."
There were other reasons why this surge of artistic activity took place at this particular time. "It was about the gay and lesbian community entering its third decade (of having a high public profile) . . . and people feeling frustrated that there was no space for black gay and lesbians," says Freeman, who, like Gupton, is originally from Massachusetts. "People were working for AIDS organizations and trying to bring it back home, wanting to be 'out' in the context of the black community. It was time for there to be an 'out' black gay and lesbian community."
Since 1990, the Pomo roster has varied a bit. Gupton took a brief sabbatical at one point and was replaced by Marvin White. Branner has also gone on and off the list, and will leave again this fall when he moves to Minneapolis. The group also includes White, Tony Stovalli and sometimes drag diva Joan Jett Blakk.
No matter what the lineup, the performers share a sensibility. Combining an emphasis on theatrical craftsmanship with humor and pathos, they offer stylish political theater--only without the pedantry that term usually implies.
In one "Dark Fruit" spoof called "Black and Gay: A Psycho-Sex Study," the Pomos spin off the pulp novel genre with a "psycho-sexologist" scientist and the discovery that, yes, there is racism in the gay world. In the "Fierce Love" sketch "Good Hands," they show what happens when two men attempt to have sex in a back room that's not really set up for that particular activity.
There are also autobiographical monologues in the Pomos' shows--including Branner's "Sweet Sadie" and Freeman's "Doin' Alright"--and pointedly topical forays. In a "Dark Fruit" episode called "Tasty," for instance, Gupton appears as a naive office temp who suffers the slings and arrows of sexual harassment.
Although the overall tone of a Pomos evening is humorous, there's more to it than comedy. "Sometimes we're satirists and sometimes we're just real," says Freeman. "The comedy thing can be a bit of a burden. Some stuff just doesn't want that kind of treatment. Whether it comes in a funny way or just comes, we just want to spit it out."
The common thread isn't style but subject. "We all stand to learn from having a conversation about what it is to be black and gay," says Gupton. "We spent so much time identifying our differences that the work ends up illustrating the basic desires to have shelter, sense of community and to live in this world unharmed. People feel that to talk about common struggle isolates, but for me it seems to be a matter of cooperative venture."
T he challenging nature of the material is also a tribute to the Pomos' high opinion of its audience. "We dared to push ahead," says Freeman. "If we're doing a coming-out story, we approach it by assuming it's not the first African-American coming-out story everyone's ever heard. We assume people have been around, and they have. We opt for a higher consciousness."
Could success change them into so-so Pomos? Maybe, if they're not careful.
Freeman says the group hasn't tailored its material to suit the mainstream. They prefer to raise audiences to their level instead. "We are real community-based artists," says Freeman. "When we're performing, it's about trying to evoke a sense of community. Trying to do that in (Lincoln Center's) Alice Tully Hall is challenging to say the least."
The biggest change is that they're not performing for a tight-knit group of fellow travelers anymore. "We were playing to a mostly black gay audience at first," says Gupton. "Now we have families and little old ladies from established parts of town coming to see us, which is a wonderful surprise."
"When we started, I could count on knowing half the people in the audience," adds Freeman. "I could throw stuff in, like personal jokes. At Lincoln Center, I hardly knew a soul. It was a very black audience, but these were not the people I had seen around the community centers. It had moved beyond that core activist audience."
Of course, there are other perks as well. "At first, it was intimidating," Branner says. of the move from small houses to large. "Then I found that I really like the space, being allowed to be that big. Also, it creates a space for other black gay performers and a black gay audience. It expands community in a different way."
Yet even if the Pomos don't feel pressured to change for their audiences, they may evolve for themselves. "Our first show, 'Fierce Love,' was about identities --that's plural because we do have different identities," says Branner. "Then we started trying to outline some of the problems that kept us from relating to larger communities, like the larger gay and black communities, and even how we relate interracially.
"We began this venture as an effort to portray the lives of black gay men because we had not seen those images either in theater or film or television," says Branner, who grew up in South Central L.A. and performs a monologue in "Dark Fruit" that is partly based on that experience. "We were certainly targeting a black gay audience. But by looking at our lives within this microcosm we created stories that had universal resonance and we discovered that our lives were as mundane as everybody else's."
There has been a lot of water under the bridge since 1990, and the Pomos feel a need to move on. For Freeman, it's a matter of changing topics. "Can I allow myself to move away from the question of identity and trust that these things will be implicit in the work and that the audience will want to make that journey with me?" he says.
Yet for Branner, who will leave the group when he moves to Minneapolis this fall, a bigger shift is needed. "Personally, I'm at a point where my black gay identity is not the primary orientation of my work," he says. "Marlon Riggs and other black gay performance artists have given the community a larger visibility and people have been allowed to look at our identities more. The discussion has begun. At least people are educated enough to know that racism exists within the gay community and that we need to talk about it."
That's partly thanks to the black gay artists themselves, and to the warm reception that the Pomos have been given by crossover audiences. "It's important for people to understand the community that black gay men are trying to develop," says Gupton. "I strongly believe now that there is a forum for other black gay groups to empower themselves. We can do what we do for each other and, at the same time, create the space for other black lesbian and gay performers."
Black gay culture is evident elsewhere as well. "Especially in Los Angeles, for example, there are a number of black gay organizations now," says Freeman. "When we were there in 1991, there were maybe two or three. Also, there are at least four or five 'zines now, where in '91 there was one. And some of the other gay magazines will actually run an article or a
photo of someone who is not white and totally over muscle-bound once in a while."
Ironically, one of the last bas tions of resistance may be the culturally specific arts. "If you look at African American arts across the country, there are so few 'out' gay artists, even in the dance world," says Freeman. "But if we try and actually name a black choreographer who's heterosexual, we're gonna be thinking for a while."
The National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, where the group performed prior to Los Angeles, was been one of those places where the Pomos felt their candor wasn't quite welcome--until this year, that is. This is the first year the group was invited to perform. "For us, it's a big telegram that said, 'Welcome home,' " says Freeman. "Other gay artists have been in the festival, but there's no hiding us. It's right there in the name. Clearly, they got the message. The inclusion is great and it's not tokenistic."
Constant self-examination keeps the Pomos on their toes. The group also shares an activist bent with other black gay artists such as dance-theater choreographer David Rousseve.
"That's what's great about the African American performing arts community now," says the Hittites' Mason. "We're not just dealing with identity issues. We're dealing with the whole person and (the Pomo Afro Homos) help make that possible. People in general are more able to deal with black men's humanity."
And that humanity is as various as that of any group. "As we announce so clearly in our show(s), these are just some of the stories," says Gupton. "We merely present the mirror, the community at large with all its flaws. What it should do is empower people to say you have value in your life. It may not be reflected in a sitcom, but you should honor it."
Which is why artists such as Gupton, Freeman and Branner continue to challenge themselves, even in the face of impressive success. "I'm trying to think in different ways about what it is that we do," says Freeman. "We were inventing the whole thing three years ago all at once. Now it's (about) trusting that there is a hunger out there that there will be an audience for the work."*
"More Fabulous Fun Stories"
Address: Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica
Hours: Thursday-Aug. 21, 8:30 p.m.
Phone: (213) 660-8587.