A fruitful performance

Shruti Kumar

The play “Strange Fruit” couldn’t have a more appropriate title. Taken from a Billie Holliday song of the same name, the two words sum up the main themes of the play — “strange” refers to the only character’s identity crisis and “fruit” to his homosexuality.

In an autobiographical performance, African-American studies and performance studies Prof. E. Patrick Johnson will explore issues of race, gender, sexuality and class at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mussetter-Struble Theatre in the Theatre and Interpretation Center.

“The running metaphor throughout the play is of lynching and the ways in which different communities, or people, or even yourself try to exorcise parts of your identity to fit in or to feel more authentic,” Johnson said. “I use my life as a template to address how these issues are resonating in contemporary times.”

“Strange Fruit,” sponsored by the Office of African-American Student Affairs as a part of Black History Month, incorporates poetry, dance and music into its production.

Johnson, 35, has toured nationally with the show, which debuted in 1999. He said Saturday will be his 17th — and last — performance.

“I’m tired of performing it because the material for me is old and I have new experiences, but I enjoy different audiences enjoying the show,” Johnson said. “I never know what to expect and how people are going to react to it.”

Jennifer Brody, an associate professor of English and African-American studies who has reviewed the play, said it was wonderful.

“Johnson’s queer quotation of the much-performed ‘Strange Fruit’ renders questions of black masculinity pertinent and poignant,” she said.

Johnson said many students struggling with their sexual identities are moved by the play and often try to contact him after the performance through e-mails, letters and cards.

During the play’s eight vignettes, Johnson deals with his own identity as black, gay, southern, male and an academic.

“If I’m in the black community, I can’t necessarily let my gay part show because that is seen as something taboo in the black community,” Johnson said. “When I was in the north-east and talked for a while, I didn’t fit in because I was from the south and didn’t have the pedigree that my other colleagues had.”

Johnson, who wrote, directed and produced “Strange Fruit,” said he hopes his play will help make sexuality a part of Black History Month discussions.

“I think it’s important that not only the black community, but the U.S. community in general, begins to appreciate the contributions of the (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) community,” he said.

At NU, Johnson said he has observed “tolerance” for homosexuality but not neccesarily “acceptance.”

“I would say it’s not a hostile environment,” Johnson said. “But it’s not necessarily an affirming one either. … It’s sort of an indifferent one.”