Sterling Houston, walkin' his blues.
Houston created his oeuvre 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 the 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 retelling of Frankenstein set in New Orleans. The mad doctor, who's portrayed as a white ancestor of the narrator, is 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 was heir to W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin, to which legacy he added the 1960's 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, rich and prosperous; he himself was a chameleon. But his central focus was reconstructing the history of the African-American presence in the New World, and at the center of that lay African spiritual life. It was Houston's conceit--derived from the speculations that black slaves brought to America--to posit a world in which the dead can leave the realm of death to walk among the living. These ghosts are allowed tangible bodies. In the imagination of the playwright, like that of the griot--the storyteller or bard of West Africa--the dead ancestors come back to life as characters in the drama to bring wisdom and to guide the poet's dispossessed tribes in their wanderings in the New World.
Of all the things 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, the racial beat, of what he called the "walking blues," his metaphor for the spirit of the individual in the world and the universe. History and myth were interchangeable in Houston's attitude, and the cyclical patterns of dominance, slavery, liberation, and love were the dramas of the great drumbeat.
In what turned out to be the last thing Houston would see published, he described the sacred walking blues in a characteristic voice. A short story, "Beyond the Blue Bardo," excerpted from Secret Oral Teachings, appears in Toby Johnson's anthology Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling, which was released 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 an opportunity.
As a fellow theatre 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 to Los Angeles, briefly, and 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 even greater erotic promise to the wiry, muscular, and horny Houston. He migrated back to California in the mid-70's, this time to the north. There 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, "It was after Jonestown and the [Harvey] 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 theatre dies hard in the soul, and Houston kept on writing. He showed his work to another San Antonio artist, Steve Bailey, and together in 1987 they founded Jump-Start Theater, which survives and thrives to this day, a center for avant-garde performance art in the Blue Star Arts Complex. 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. In the process of jump starting this project, Houston gained a national reputation. He traveled all over the U.S. for productions, workshops, and colloquies. 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 projects over the years, even from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Having wandered from his hometown, he returned to realize 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, Reconstruction, and 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 existed. In the late 80's, there was little public gay life in San Antonio, however impassioned the city's homosexual undercurrent. There was no visible bohemian scene, no downwardly mobile chic, and few stage actors. Into that vacuum Bailey and Houston rushed and 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, which is now a live 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, which was 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 a 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. In that spirit, he had a partner and life-mate for the last sixteen years of his life, 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 had set in. His vigor had been compromised, though he'd remained stubbornly committed to his work and pushed himself through his illness: such committed drive was notoriously part of his personality. He regaled us with stories, some humorous, of his medical misadventures, as well as of his frustrations, failures, and successes as an artist. It was astonishing that someone in his 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 a 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," he began,
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." Is the Walking Blues preventative medicine? Yes, of course it is.
There was an aspect of the prima donna to 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.
Houston died of AIDS in San Antonio on November 8, 2006, at age sixty. Throngs of people attended his funeral.
Dennis Paddie is a writer 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.
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|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2007|
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