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Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
An affectionate portrait by a fellow Texas playwright.
This article appeared in the March-April 2007 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review
by Dennis Paddie
Sterling Houston, an experimental playwright who died last year, embodied the archetype of the American artist who moves with his dreams out into the world but comes back home with his dreams intact to do his major work. His life illustrates a motif of the modern acceptance of homosexuality and spread of gay culture: the gay artist who goes to the big city, gets liberated, then returns home to spread the good news of liberation, urbanity and an outsider’s perspective.
Houston created his ouevre out of the organic whole of his life as a gay, black man. He wrote over thirty plays, many of them musicals, in addition to some dramas and comedies. Typically, as in “Black and Blue,” one of his last productions, Houston used musical collage as a dramatic form in a jazz medium, with the drum as primary instrument. He combined familiar songs with liberation texts, news reportage, and historical anecdote—often in high black lingo. The bite of his wit was famous. His titles hint suggestively at his subjects and themes: “Isis in Nubia,” “Santo Negro,” “Cameoland,” “La Frontera,” “Cabaret de Caramelo,” “Womandingo,” “High Yello Rose,” “Black Lily, White Lily,” “Miranda Rites,” and “The Living Graves.” (Four of these plays have been published in the aptly titled anthology Myth, Magic, and Farce: Four Multicultural Plays by Sterling Houston, edited by Sandra M. Mayo.)
His first novel, Le Griffon, published in 2000, was a re-telling of Frankenstein, set in New Orleans with the mad doctor, portrayed as a white ancestor of the narrator, constructing his monster out of cadavers from a mix of races. At the time of his death, Houston was working on an autobiographical roman a clef, The Secret Oral Teachings of the Sacred Walking Blues. (It’s expected to be published posthumously through Gemini Ink, the San Antonio nonprofit literary center that sponsored his work in recent years.)
In the epic quest for the grail of a post-slavery black identity, Houston is heir to W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, with the 60s twist of a prose-poet in command of the large issues. The characters onto which he projected himself could be anyone: brown, black, white, dispossessed and orphaned or rich and prosperous; he was chameleon. But his central focus was the reconstruction of the history of the African-American presence in the New World, and at the center of that lay African spiritual life. In Houston’s conceit, derived from the speculations that black slaves brought to America, the spiritual life means the dead can walk out of the realm of death to live among the living. The ghosts are allowed a tangible body. In the imagination of the playwright, like that of the griot, the storyteller/bard of West Africa, the dead—those known and anonymous of his ancestors—come back to life as characters of the drama to bring wisdom to guide his dispossessed tribes in their wanderings in the New World to improve their lot.
Of all that his people had possessed in Africa, Houston puts forth, only the drum survived slavery. One of his characters says: “We kept the drums and remembered how to use them and move with them and came to dominate all music in the western world.” A drum vibrates the air inside an enclosed space. Then surely the drum was the background, racial beat of what he called the sacred, walking blues, his metaphor for the spirit of the individual in the world and in the universe. History and myth were interchangeable in Houston’s attitude and the cyclic patterns of dominance, slavery, liberation, and love were the dramas of the great drumbeat.
In what turned out to be the last thing he’d see published, he described the sacred walking blues in characteristic voice. A short story, “Beyond the Blue Bardo,” excerpted from that roman a clef of his, appears in Toby Johnson’s anthology Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling that was released in December just weeks after Houston’s own entry into the realm of death.
The Walking Blues is the mother of all unified opposites. And our double-spirited sissy holds the key. The slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune in men’s eyes get knotted and tossed over the shoulder like a silk Hermes scarf; misery transformed by style. This strut of which I sing has naught to do with fatherlessness. Though in truth, the love of a good man is essential if a man is ever to be any good at loving.
The black sissy has earned the right to strut, no lie. I know I did, paid for it with years of denial and shame. The head tosses left as the knee shoots right and the buttcheek switches right under it in perfect tempo and then reverses in a sweet rhythm that is beyond nature. Reverses and transcends. Transcending ridicule while reveling in foolishness, this sissy is both king and queen, and knows her royal family by the singing of the song. Winds of disdain whip past her ears and get incorporated into the music, translate themselves into a sphincter thrust that has become the envy of the civilized world.
“Beyond the Blue Bardo” reveals the spiritual reconciliations Houston had made with history and with himself especially as he approached death. The sacred oral teachings of the Blue Bardo amount to using the metaphorical drum that had survived slavery to walk the earth to find oneself and to transform the negative into an advantage, bad fortune into opportunity.
As a fellow theater artist and also a wanderer, I resonate with Sterling’s metaphor. I was in New York and in San Francisco at roughly the same times as he. I walked along the ruined docks on the old West Side Highway and from Fisherman’s Wharf to Land’s End and across the bridge to those black sand beaches north of the Golden Gate. I can imagine him walking—as did so many of us in our generation of gay men discovering a different beat and a different drum—down Christopher Street to the Hudson and from 18th and Castro over to the Haight: walking the quest, walking the blues, walking to his own drumbeat.
In 1963, at seventeen, Houston appropriated a Greyhound bus-ticket from his mother’s travel agency stock and ran away to find the bigger world, first briefly to Los Angeles then to New York. There he performed with Charles Ludlum’s Theater of the Ridiculous, hung-out with other black intellectuals from the circles of the famous Judson Church poetry readings, and was ecstatically initiated into homosexuality and welcomed into a positive gay black identity.
But San Francisco, as the gay mecca of the era, held out erotic promise to wiry, muscular and horny Houston. He migrated back to California in the mid-70s, this time to the north. He founded a proto-punk-rock band, and landed a spot at the Magic Theater in the era of Michael McClure, just as Sam Shepard, playwright-in-residence, won a Pulitzer Prize. But that period, however glorious, however stylishly/counterculturally impoverished, lasted only a few years. As Houston said in a 2001 interview with performance artist Keith Hennessey, (Community Arts Network: Reading Room, February, 2001), “It was after Jonestown and the Milk assassination. I was over San Francisco.” By 1981, it was time to go home—“to make money,” he told Hennessey. At the age of 36, he decided that his career in the theater was over, too.
So he returned to Texas. Houston’s family was invested in real estate on San Antonio’s black east side. He lived in one of their houses and worked odd jobs in the gay community. He was on staff with the community paper and he famously sold chocolate chip cookies in a gay-owned concession across the street from the Alamo!
They say theater dies hard in the soul and Houston had kept writing. He showed his work to another San Antonio artist, Steve Bailey, and together in 1987 they founded Jump-Start Theater in the Blue Star Arts Complex which survives and thrives today, a center for Texas avant-garde Performance Art. This theater has presented hundreds of latino, black, and gay artists to San Antonio. Jump-Start has educated a whole generation of technicians, directors and performers. And, in the process, Sterling Houston gained a national reputation. He traveled all over America for productions, workshops, colloquies and awards. He collaborated with renowned poet Maya Angelou. (A message of condolence and personal affection from Angelou was read at his funeral). He received multiple grants for many years, even from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. He had wandered away from his hometown and returned to it to a successful career.
To comprehend the scope of Houston and Bailey’s accomplishment, it helps to understand a little about San Antonio. This city, founded by Spanish Conquistadors, is entering its fourth century. The civil administration has remained coherent and intact, one long survival, throughout the governance of Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Union, the Confederacy, then Reconstruction and the return to the Union. Beautifully ornamented and built over native springs and ancient aqueducts, San Antonio is one of the great “mood” cities of the country along with New Orleans, Boston and San Francisco, full of nostalgia, mystery and noir.
Times have changed, but a memorial statue to the Confederate war-dead still stands in a park at the heart of the old city even today. In Texas history, whites have dispossessed the indigenous Mexicans of their lands and livelihoods (that’s the real story of the Alamo). And for decades they dominated their former black slaves and freedmen. San Antonio is a major outpost of the American military establishment and one of the largest Roman Catholic dioceses in the country. It is conservative by long history.
In such a bastion of the dominant social order, gay people hardly exist. In the late 80s, there was little public gay life in San Antonio, however impassioned the city’s homosexual undertow. There was no visible bohemian scene, no downwardly mobile chic and few life actors. In that vacuum Bailey and Houston created a stage—literally and figuratively—where such people could exist, where such things could happen and where alternative points of view could be expressed.
The portrait of his life as he walked his blues through the richly ornamented public spaces of his native city is so tender we understand immediately that Houston saw the substance of life itself as love. At nine years old, he tells, he saw Doris Day as Calamity Jane sing “Secret Love” at the old Jim-Crow-era movie house a few blocks from his home, The Cameo Theater—now a live theater venue in a stylishly renovated area of downtown. He wanted to be Doris, he said, not only for her golden hair, but because she was so masculine! And he held that desire to be a secret jewel somehow connected to sexual feelings to come.
He gave these feelings primary place in his life. He believed that sex, and gay sex in particular, was an aspect of the divine fiat. Houston held sexual experience to be sacred. If we know the heart of the universe to be emptiness, what death means and therefore what life means to us depends upon how we fill the emptiness. Houston believed it could be filled with ecstasy, beauty and love. And in that spirit, he had a partner and lifemate for the last sixteen years, Arnie Aprill, director of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education.
Toby Johnson and I had lunch with Sterling Houston last spring. On that occasion Sterling delivered the edited version of his contribution for Charmed Lives. He appeared emaciated and weak. He’d been using a wheelchair occasionally, he explained. It was hard to walk long distances now. In 1996 he’d suffered a ruptured appendix; it was misdiagnosed and peritonitis set in. His vigor had been compromised, though he’d remained stubbornly committed to his work and pushed himself through his illness—that committed drive was notoriously part of his personality. He regaled us with stories, partly humorous, of his medical misadventures as well as of his frustrations, failures and successes as an artist. It was astonishing that someone in his sepulchral condition could be so vital. It was clear that he had filled his cup of emptiness with emptiness itself, and that he had no need to suffer any further.
We had picked the poet up at his diminutive wood-frame house. The gay-hippie-chic styled house was flawlessly appointed with mementos of his life, his bedroom filled with votive images of many gods and saints from many places. These included the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, but particularly St. Martin de Porres, the paradigmatically dispossessed South American mulatto saint with whom Sterling understandably identified. He even looked like him. Over lunch, the conversation turned to the spiritual matters of the walking blues. In the manuscript he carried, he’d written words that summarized his gained wisdom in typically Sterling Houston dramatic voice. In honor of his theatrical style, imagine a drumbeat under the words—first Tibetan temple drums and procession gongs, changing to the rat-tat of a jazz snare drum, then ending with a snap crash on the high-hat cymbals:
[Those Buddhist lamas] were hung up on transformation, you hear. The lean bitter ecology of their glacial existence inspired no fantasies of wondrous bountiful harvests. No milk and honey, no grapes and grains piled as high as the pyramids. Instead those girls worked another alchemy. Taking the wind and the snow with the lamb and the yak, they made straw into delicious spiritual gold.
The Walking Blues, I say, is a way to keep the real blues at bay. Rather than say “Good morning, heartache, sit down,” say, “This black sissy has earned the right to strut.”
There was an aspect of the prima donna in Houston’s self-presentation at that spring lunch, a strut. That part of his personality resonated with the great gay voices of our culture. In his use of the gay patois, he was free to assume the role of one of the great, black, queen, artist intellectuals of his time. In doing so, he had changed the world through which he walked.
Sterling Houston, a significant American dramatic poet, died of AIDS, in San Antonio, November 8, 2006 at age sixty. Throngs of people attended his funeral.
Dennis Paddie is an artist and art historian in central Texas. Two of his dramas were listed by the Austin Chronicle in its select bibliography of Texas plays of the last fifty years .
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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