POMO AFRO HOMOS
The Pomo Afro Homos Return
By Owen Keehnen
The Pomo Afro Homos (Post Modern African-American Homosexuals) is a performance group consisting of Brian Freeman, Djola Branner, and new member Marvin K. White. The group began in 1991 out of growing frustration at the lack of black gay voices and a deep need to express that richness of experience. The three men met, things clicked, and The Pomo Afro Homos have been dedicated to making their voices heard ever since. The result of their coming together was the highly successful show 'Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life', an exploration of the racial and sexual identities of black gay men.
Now The Pomo Afro Homos are back in Chicago at The Randolph Street Gallery with 'Dark Fruit'. Their new show played to sold-out audiences at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall where the crowd gave the group three curtain calls as well as a standing ovation. 'Dark Fruit' is a series of six sketches that explore the black gay identity in another way and on another level than their first show.
Recently I had the chance to briefly chat with founding group members Djola Branner and Brian Freeman. Among other things we discussed the trials and triumphs of the group and the overall challenge of their latest performance success 'Dark Fruit'.
(This interview originally appeared in Chicago Outlines in September 1993)
How exactly did The Pomo Afro Homos come into being?
Djola: It came about almost three years ago as the result of an idea Brian had. He wanted to do a show about our experience as black gay men. He approached me and said, "Hey, do you have any stories?" And I said, "I'm sure I can think of something." He asked me if I was interested in performing them and I said "Yeah". He asked if I could think of anyone else and I said Eric Gupton. We got together and within 45 minutes we had the outline of our first show, 'Fierce Love'. And we've just been doing it ever since.
That's amazing; you really know things are going to work out amongst you with a positive sign like that from the very start. Your latest show is 'Dark Fruit', how does it differ from 'Fierce Love'?
Djola: 'Fierce Love' is really a celebration of who we are. All of us were very tired of seeing misrepresentation about who we are as black gay men on TV and on stage and in movies. 'Dark Fruit' is more of an expose. The sketches go a little deeper into examining our relationships -- our intimate relationships, those with our family, those with the black community, with our parents…and it's not apologetic at all.
Brian, what’s your take on 'Dark Fruit'?
Brian: This is a dark show. It's funny, but the humor cuts very deeply. We're dealing with taboos. We say the things that dare to be spoken. We dare to be ambivalent. The show makes people very uncomfortable…by design. People always say they never know whether to laugh or cry or be silent.
In my opinion, theater that prompts that sort of emotional conflict is always the most true. Why do you think the group is so popular?
Brian: We're the love children of James Baldwin and Sylvester. In a way that's what we're trying for. We want to be that intellectual and that theatrical at the same time.
Tell me - what is the story behind the controversy between The Pomo Afro Homos and the directors of The National Black Theater Festival?
Djola: In a nutshell, we applied to the festival and were rejected without any reason. We wrote a letter to the director asking for a reason and never got a response, so we wrote a letter that posed the question of homophobia as a possible reason for the rejection and sent the letter throughout the black theater community. When the director of The National Black Theater Festival began to get responses to that letter he got concerned about bad press and opened up the possibility of a mutual reconciliation still without ever giving us a reason why our work was not acceptable. And he sent word from someone else that we should apologize. We feel we have nothing to apologize for and that is where the negotiations have stopped.
I'm sorry that happened to you guys. Would you mind telling me a little bit about the workshop on performance you will be giving at The Randolph Street Gallery as well?
Brian: It's called 'Unleash The Queen'. It’s a performance workshop on how to develop a performance piece. A lot of us, especially queers of color, often go through a lot of self-censorship, either through fear or shame our tongues are tied. It's really about that, unleashing that, daring to put it out there. It's about letting the art out.
Somewhat along the lines of self-censorship. Because of the scarcity of black gay voices do you feel a greater level of responsibility to capture this experience or a greater level of freedom because fewer guidelines exist?
Djola: Both if that's possible. I feel a responsibility and a great deal of freedom. I feel a responsibility to represent my experience with integrity and as much honesty as I can. I find a great sense of freedom because a lot of the stuff we do people aren’t familiar with or have never talked about. The greatest thing for me is to share my story in a theater and have it go out with a group of black gay men who are then inspired to tell their own stories.
I love that. I am all about preserving voices and experience. Brian, what do you see as the main aim and objective of the group?
Brian: We like to just put it out there and say, "We have lived these lives". We have a level of existence that is often erased. Our stories are left untold. I think we're saying "We're here, we're black queers, and we've got a lot more going on than shopping."
What can we expect from attending The Pomo Afro Homos performance this weekend?
Brian: Part of the reason we do what we do is to provide space for black lesbians and gays to come together and sit in a space with each other and have fun, to feel each other as community and have "our stuff" discussed and played with. We can be serious, sexy, and silly --- all of that at the same time. But if you're say…a white gay man you can get a lot from a black gay event. If you're not of our community it'll give you a good chance to look at people who are.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me you guys and all the best with the new show.