Into the Storm
by Donalevan Maines
Cleo House Jr. is bracing for a storm. The play he’s directing about a gay teenager “may be considered our most provocative show ever,” says the out chairperson of Texas Southern University’s visual and performing arts department.
“This is the first of its kind at our university,” he explains. “Honestly, I hope it turns out we’re overestimating how bold it is, but it is bold.”
The title character in the play, Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet, foresees “oncoming storms and rain” in a Louisiana town before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The story pays tribute to how, historically, gays and even transgender people were viewed on a higher plane, and more spiritual. Magical, if you will,” says House. “Being connected to the ‘otherness’ about him makes Marcus special.
“To be real clear, it’s a legacy that goes beyond the black community. It was present in [Native American] tribal cultures and more ancient than that. Black people now are disconnected from that.
“Marcus is fine with the fact that he’s gay,” adds House. “He’s more upset about coming to terms with his gift, and how to manage his gift. He can talk to people who have passed on—they tell him stuff, but he can’t alter the future, and that is frustrating.”
Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet is the last in Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. McCraney also wrote Wig Out!, the 2008 off-Broadway play about young gay men from rival “houses” facing off in a runway “realness” competition at a drag ball.
“Unfortunately, Marcus may be considered provocative by some due to the gay themes and sexuality that are featured in the play,” says House. “LGBTQ issues are usually relegated to the shadows at a historically black college. As the new chair of the department, it is my goal to bring us into the modern era. We are also reaching out to local businesses and organizations for support of this groundbreaking play at TSU. We want to show the campus community and our patrons that Houston supports this endeavor.”
House, who is 40, grew up in Hooks, Texas, near Texarkana. “I had no gay role models,” he says. “My mom had 10 brothers and sisters and my dad had almost as many. I have tons of cousins and uncles and aunts, but to this day, I am the only one [who ‘s known to be gay].
“I came out a couple of different times,” he explains. “The first time, I was 13 and I came out to my mother. She said, ‘No, you’re not gay. Everybody cares about the other sexes when you’re that age.’ When I was 23, I finally decided to tell her again, and this time I was very adamant. I told her, ‘I’ve prayed, I’ve sought counsel, I’ve bemoaned this for years. I’m over this.’ She said, ‘I love you. You’re my son. We will agree to disagree.’”
Hooks explains, “When I was 18 and went to college, I came out to everybody” at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He received his master of fine arts degree at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Away from home, he says, “Everybody knew the whole me. I wanted my family to deal with the entire me.”
Currently single, he says a sticking point in his previous relationship was his insistence on living as an authentic man. “We were together 13 years, but he wasn’t out to his family. For me, as a gay man, that was not an option. I am gay, and when I was dating someone, I brought him to campus and introduced him to my students.
“There are literally tons of gay kids on campus, but there are no gay organizations to my knowledge,” says House, who arrived at TSU a year ago.
Last spring, he directed the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, which made a star of Houston native Jennifer Holliday.
“It’s all been very hetero, hetero, hetero and great, great, great, but that’s not all there is. It’s time to stretch. We’re not on some conversion trip. People don’t have to ‘agree’ with what they see onstage. We don’t ‘agree’ with killing, but we do Medea because it’s good drama.
“There was a time when I would have been told, ‘We don’t do [gay plays] here.’ But if we are truly holding up a mirror to nature, then we cannot just hold up a mirror to what I’m comfortable with or what my neighbor is comfortable with.
“I do feel the campus and our audience may be uncomfortable with this play, not because they’re uncomfortable with gay people, but because they’re not used to seeing gayness on stage. I’ve even talked with gay people who said the first time they saw men kissing in a movie, it made them uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because you aren’t used to it. It’s an alien thing to you.”
Gays onstage, says House, is a step beyond honest portraits of gay life that have been more high-profile this year on screen. “Orange Is the New Black is definitely one of them,” he says. “I enjoyed the rainbow of diversity within the community” on the Netflix series, which was honored at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on August 16 for Outstanding Casting and Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for Uzo Aduba as lesbian Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren.
In addition, says House, “You gotta look at Michael Sam, the football player who came out.” (Also on August 16, Sam notched his first quarterback sack as a pro.) “He and Jason Collins, in basketball—those are pivotal moments that chip away, even if you can’t see it, and make you seem more regular in society.
“I was talking with a parent, a black lady, whose son goes to an almost all-white, all-Jewish school. Every time they have some kind of an election, they always vote him president. All those children know is that presidents are black. It’s really amazing. Nobody thought that when I was growing up. Everybody comes out for their own reasons, but there is a lifelong ripple effect of breaking down barriers.”
House has enough administrative duties as a TSU department chairperson that he’s not required to direct a production. “I volunteered to direct,” he says, “because it keeps me in contact with students.”
Last year, it was a TSU theater student who told House about auditions for August Wilson’s Fences at Pearland Theatre Guild. New to Houston, and living in Bellaire, House attended the tryouts and landed the central role.
Fences is the 1950s installment of Wilson’s 10-play series, The Pittsburgh Cycle (also called “the Century Cycle”), each set in a different decade of the 20th century. Two of the plays, including Fences, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In fact, House once starred as Boy Willie in the other Pulitzer Prize winner in the series, The Piano Lesson, at Theater of the Seventh Sister in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
When Wilson attended a performance of the show, House recalls, “It was easily the most nerve-wracking night of my life. I looked out and saw the light reflecting on him in the second row, and it was a struggle to continue. It was harrowing. Afterwards, August Wilson signed my script and I got to converse with him. He was a very gracious man.”
In Fences, House portrayed Troy Maxson, a disgruntled former star in Negro League baseball, before professional sports became an option for black men. Both James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington won Tony Awards when they played the part on Broadway.
House, who serves on the board of directors for the local authors’ group Scriptwriters/Houston, also enjoyed a staged reading of a play he wrote, Andre the Prophet, at Theatre Suburbia. “I will be working on a full mounting of the two-act play for the public,” he says.
“It is a dramedy. It’s semi-autobiographical, about a young gay man who comes home to clean up all the mess before he moves on with his life,” explains House. “He confronts the man who molested him, the brother who called him ‘fag,’ and the mother who was absent.”
Like Marcus, the central character in Andre the Prophet also speaks with the dead, “including his grandfather who was a slave, and his grandmother who tells him there are gays in heaven, and that she’s surprised by that.”
The play’s theme was inspired by the Sankofa symbol in the Akan language of Ghana. “It’s a bird flying backwards. The idea is to look back and deal with the past before you tackle the future.”
First, however, House plans to bring on the rain for Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet.“It is a play about friendship, family, self-acceptance, and following one’s own unique path,” he says.
Following the performances at TSU, the cast of 11 students will take the play to Fort Worth for a state competition in which the winning production will advance to nationals in the prestigious annual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
What: Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet
When: Oct. 2–4 and 10–11 at 8 p.m.; Oct. 5 and 12 at 4 p.m.
Where: Ollington Smith Playhouse, Texas Southern University, 3100 Cleburne
Tickets: $10 ($5 with valid student ID). Sold at the door; limited seating available.
Info: [email protected], 713.313.7157
Donalevan Maines also writes about Victor/Victoria in this issue of OutSmart magazine.