by Latoya Peterson
Anticipation buzzed around the debut of Deez Nuts, a five-man independent show billed as “the “all male spin to the Vagina Monologues,” since it was announced back in December. Amanda Hess of the Sexist blog was so excited that she reached out to creator/writer John Johnson to get the inside scoop:
City Paper: Deez Nuts. What does the title of the piece mean?
John Johnson: “Deez Nuts” is just like, D.C. . . . I’m sure everywhere people say “Deez Nuts,” but when I was in high school, it was like a refrain. “Guess what? Deeeeez nuuuuuts!” It was more of a chant or a cadence. People are familiar with it, you know what I mean? And it refers to a dude’s testicles. So it’s a witty title for a show that talks about men’s experiences.
CP: Was Deez Nuts inspired by the Vagina Monologues?
JJ: The show was inspired by talking to men in the community, but the Vagina Monologues is a good reference point for the audience. . . . The world is familiar with the Vagina Monologues, so we used the name to make people understand what it is. This is an all-male spin on that concept, with a real local D.C. flavor. It’s a perspective on everything from love to war to having children, being fathers. But unlike the Vagina Monologues, where the women talk a lot about their parts—you know, about hair on the vagina and having periods—Deez Nuts doesn’t focus on the male parts so much. It definitely talks about sex and relationships, but it’s more about all the things that affect these nuts, instead of the actual nuts.
Intriguing stuff. In the name of supporting local theater and the narrative voices of black men, my friends and I trudged out into the brutal 20 degree weather and froze all the way to Dance Place on Saturday night. It was well worth the trip.
The title, Deez Nuts, would assume some form of belligerence or an angry, posturing defiance – and that dynamic is present, but muted. Instead, the five pieces were unified by the idea of men dropping their guards and speaking directly from the heart. Each piece began with each actor dropping to floor and doing fifty push ups, as if they just rolled out of bed. (They also did this sans shirt – this becomes problematic later.)
John Johnson opens up with a poetic warm up, a free-style welcome to the audience. He dedicates the poem to “kings, queens, niggas, and bitches” and to “Marion Barry and the guy who introduced him to crack.” He makes a 50 cent reference saying “put the kids in jail/be a millionaire” and notes that “poor whites ain’t free either, they’re just light skinned niggas.” He expresses love to all the GLBQ brothers and sisters in the house, and with that, opens the show.
The play takes place on a very small set – there’s a small couch, a table and chair, an ironing board, a photo, , a guitar amp and guitar, and an ancient Nintendo system.
The first monologue is from a character who appears to be struggling with a love issue. He muses to himself “I love women like graffiti loves Disco Dan…like ghetto girls love weave and tattoos, like chicken wings love mumbo* sauce.” He pauses while struggling to find something to say to his wife. It takes a few moments to realize that the character is a soldier, stationed in Iraq. Explaining that “our bombs don’t speak Arabic,” the actor reflects on the choices that led him to enlist. Sometimes, these opinions are tinged with anger, like when he reminds the audience that recruits have more opinions than just left, left, left, right, left. He talked about understanding that the only people who had good consistent money where he grew up were either in the military or slinging drugs on the corner. He talks about thinking of Iraqi fathers and why the US is here in the first place. The solider also ruminates on when Muhammad Ali was a conscientious objector, asking “How are you going to tell a whole country to hold deez nuts, because I’m not doing it?” That was actually a pretty good summation of what happened, in my opinion. He thinks a little more on racism and patriotism, but then decides to try to reconnect to home through Facebook and Myspace. (There was also a “poking” joke in there about Tiger Woods.)
The next monologue was on dreams. Opening with the question “just because your eyes are open, does it mean you’re awake?” this character was more poetic than the others. “Dreams are like living with your eyes closed,” he says, defining terms as he goes along. “To imagine is to be caught between the real and the fictional.” The monologue is loosely organized, tumbling along as if it was being done on the spot. The character explains his view on reality, explaining “I am going to believe that Nikes make me run fast…I am going to believe that every girl has a phat ass.” The dreamer quickly falls into defeatism though, saying “Life is too short – why waste it trying to make sense of it.” As the narrative goes on, the dreamer grows more and more cynical before returning to himself, asking for truth. He closes saying “America makes you an opportunist…it will institutionalize you…use deez nuts to inspire you, maybe I’ll pinch you awake too.”
The next monologue is about a father grappling with his own sexual relationships while trying to steer his daughter through hers. The father (who refers to himself in the piece as Jay) is open about his insecurities and having no game. The audience was in stitches as he described a dream where he was staring down some fine girl at a house party…because all he could do was stare, since he has no game. He lays out the vision of the perfect woman (who was 36-26-40), and as she came closer she smelled of an ancient oil “like kush.” He couldn’t figure out if this dream woman was real or not until the moment in the dream where he started having sex without a condom. Then he woke up. Jay then uses the jumping off point of the dream to discuss sex and the AIDS epidemic in DC. He wryly explains: “Kanye would say that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, but Reagan must have hated some niggas! AIDS, crack, y’all should take all that!” Jay then segways into a conversation he had with his baby’s mother about their college-aged daughter, who apparently caught some “dick desire” while hanging out with “her winter boo.” He waffles about this, knowing that his ex wanted him to be outraged, but feeling hypocritical (because his daughter was born when he was sixteen) and understanding what her paramour is also going through. However, he did talk about worrying that his daughter would catch HIV. He makes sure to note he would be disappointed, but would not judge her - the disease does not define the person. Jay thinks on some of the things his daughter said, ending with discussions of how often the government has used blacks as experiments, either formally (like in Tuskegee) or informally. He ends, explaining that we cannot trust the government cannot cure what ails us – healing will need to come from within.
The final monologue was about the changing nature of love. The lover begins speaking to a photograph, explaining that he just got out of a five year relationship. He speaks openly, almost wistfully, about falling for a girl named Ebony he met at the now-defunct Caribou books. The lover talks about the years he spent, the wonderful energy at the beginning of their relationship, and how it was so good they ended up having a child. More sadly, he described how his relationship changed post-baby, how they fell out of tempo, how he cheated. Then, things got better. They worked on their relationship, and things were going well – until he suspected her of cheating after a month of consistent phone calls from an unsaved number in her phone. After one day of strange behavior, he calls the number. The guy on the other end hangs up on him. He calls back, and incredulously asks the audience “do you know this dude had Soulja Boy on his answering machine? With him? Really?” He then lapses back into reflection, explaining “I mean, I did the same thing, but I did it when shit was fucked up. I thought things were better now. Maybe they weren’t.” With resignation, the lover moves on, leaving Ebony behind. To end his piece, the lover performs an easy, reggae-tinged acoustic song on his guitar, a beautiful end to his set.
The play ended. The audience asked questions. We sat and thought for a few moments, reflecting on all we had seen and heard. Most of the people in the small hall agreed they liked what they saw, though one woman put in a request to hear from some older men, which Johnson then summarized as “40 year old nuts.” I also found out this was actually the second Deez Nuts performance – the first set of monologues had debuted in 2008. Some people seemed less than satisfied during the show – one woman heckled her way through most of the monologues, loudly cheering when the men did their push-ups without shirts on. This was fine – into one smaller guy came out and she said loudly “oh, I guess he’s just working on it.” In a space where men wanted to share their lives and experiences, the catcalls felt silencing – after all, we can find a great many images of black men in various stages of undress, but it can be difficult to find one decent monologue, or a role that doesn’t fit the trails blazed by Sidney Poitier or 50 Cent.
Another member of the audience asked the different players why they chose to participate, and the lover (who I believe was played by a musician named C-Love) said exactly what I had been thinking the whole show: “You rarely get to see black men – men in general, really – but black men really get to speak on what they think and how they feel. You just don’t see that.” And it’s true – often times, men are not given the space to articulate themselves within the strict confines of masculinity. This is even more harmful to men of color, who also contend with racial stereotypes associated with the expression of their emotions.
I’d love to see Deez Nuts expand the way the Vagina Monologues did, to spark college plays and small revivals and other spin offs featuring men of other races. I’d like men to reclaim their inner lives, their emotional space, and to share those thoughts with the world.
But failing that, I’ll just wait for Johnson to write part three.
*Sometimes called mambo, sometimes called mumbo. Spelling of the condiment depends on where you go, much like the recipe. No I don’t know what it is and I can’t explain it to you and even if I could, you’d probably go somewhere else and eat their version. If you’re in DC, just try some. It probably won’t kill you, but don’t quote me on that.