Catch a Tiger By His Toe

Johnathan Cedano as Tiger Tyson during Confessions' premiere performance at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival (April 2010)

Gifted scholar and activist Darnell L. Moore shares his insightful interview with bestselling author James Earl Hardy as they discuss, among other things, Hardy's Confessions of a Homo Thug Porn Star, about the life of legendary porn entertainer Tiger Tyson. And Son of Baldwin has the exclusive.

An Interview: James Earl Hardy on His Confessions of a Homo Thug Porn Star
By: Darnell L. Moore
June 8, 2011

Plays focused on the diverse lives of queer of color subjects receive little to no attention within mainstream media. And plays written to share the complicated/remarkable life stories of queer of color sex workers are virtually nonexistent and if/when produced, tend to be highly criticized by many audiences including queer of color audiences.  James Earl Hardy's recent play, Confessions of a Homo Thug Porn Star, centers on the life of Tiger Tyson, a well-known porn star and entrepreneur. While this is James's first play, it is not his first attempt to bring to the fore the experiences of Black and brown men who love (and/or have sex with other men) on paper. What follows is an interview between James and I—which focuses on his new work—that was conducted over e-mail recently.

DLM: You are well known for your work as a prolific journalist turned best-selling novelist. Most recently, the public has encountered James Earl Hardy the dramaturge with the debut of your play, Confessions of a Homo Thug Porn Star.  What prompted your shift from the novel to the stage?

JEH:  It happened by accident. Tiger approached me about helping him with his memoir and the more he opened up it became clear that his life story would be so ripe for a one-man show. He confessed to being a fan of mine for years. He also believed that, given our combined audiences, that our collaboration would be a success. Always the businessman! So, with his blessing, I drafted a script and entered it into New York's Downtown Urban Theater Festival last year. It won their best short prize and it has had three incarnations since: two more runs in New York (at Whyte Hall on Fire Island in August and at the Roy Arias Theater in mid-town Manhattan in March) and its national debut in Washington, D.C. last month (at Lace Lounge and Restaurant). 

DLM:  Why did you settle on this particular title?

JEH:  It's a stand-out marquee title and tells you up front who and what the play is about. Tiger doesn't care for it—I agree with him that the invention and propagation of the "homo thug" tag by heterosexuals is a not-so-subtle way of saying that real thugs are straight—but he can't argue with the affect it has on people. Some are tickled by it; others find it to be curious; and some are offended by it. It's sexy and shocking at the same time.

DLM: What plays, if any, inspired your construction of Confessions?

JEH:  I took my inspiration for the construction of the play from the movie Interview with the Vampire, except you don't see the interviewer on stage. I thought it would be better theatrically and give the work a more intimate feel if the audience stands-in for the reporter. So during certain parts of the show, a very natural call and response exchange happens. And there's a testimonial vibe, reminiscent of the play Having Our Say. Like the Delany sisters, Tiger is actually confessing in the show, sharing things that he's never disclosed before, and placing his life in its proper cultural context.

DLM: Confessions, while it is a piece that specifically focuses on the “rags to riches” story of the famed bisexual porn star/producer/entrepreneur Tiger Tyson, also seeks to unpack the complicated intersections of race, sexuality, gender and class that shape the lives of “same gender loving” (as you would say) men of color that figure in your novels. Do you see a connection between your characters and the characterization of Tiger in Confessions?

JEH: Confessions is based on a real flesh and blood person, the pressure was on to present and represent Tiger well. However, Tiger does remind me of Raheim, the b-boy of the B-Boy Blues series: a boi from the 'hood trying to navigate the minefields of masculinity and sexual identity. Neither were comfortable with the typical alphabet soup labels non-heteros can choose from but still came to embrace themselves as men who are attracted to and love other men. And the very existence of both men (either on page or in person) challenges the notion that SGL/gay/bi/queer men have to fit into a certain box; we are indeed everything, everywhere and everyone. Yet, the fact that some misguided hetero Negores are, in 2011, still asking me who "the gay rapper" is shows just how sexually schizophrenic we [Black folks] continue to be. The question you should be asking isn't who is the gay rapper but who aren't the gay rappers! 

DLM: The script was developed from a transcript of your conversations with Tiger and many of the lines can be directly attributed to him.  Is it your impression that this particular artistic move helped to illuminate the interiority (and authenticity) of the character in Confessions?  If so, how?

JEH: I was in a rare position as the playwright, since I have direct access to the subject. Most theatrical works about real people, especially in the one-man/woman show category, are created after the subject has passed on. And, in many of those cases, the portrait is a fictionalized account of their life, even if documented interviews are utilized. Because Confessions is not only told in his words but from his perspective, it has a different kind of energy; you don't feel detached from Tiger, you're really getting him.

Tiger Tyson (the subject) and James Earl Hardy (the playwright) just before the curtain went up on the premiere performance of Confessions (Photo credit: Marc Newell of the Downtown Urban Theater Festival/April 2010)

DLM:  Tell us a bit about Tiger, the human being, who is situated behind the epithets that minimally define him.

JEH:  Tiger is such a down-to-earth, charismatic gent; the way he draws the boys in on screen is not an act, it's very natural for him. He possesses true sex appeal. He has a wicked sense of humor, both about himself and the business—which is why he's been able to survive it without the type of scars that so many others in porn end up with. And once you get past the mystique, you discover he also has, as Angela Winbush sings, a sensitive heart. I was surprised to learn that, like me, he loves Luther Vandross, and he gets all mushy when you bring up his daughter, the apple of his eye. 

DLM:  What has been Tiger’s reaction to the play and Johnathan Cedano’s, the main actor’s, response to Tiger’s reaction?

JEH:  Tiger was beside himself, watching Johnathan step into his Timbs; it was as if he was hearing about himself for the first time. But it has to be a different kind of out-of-body experience when you're seeing your life acted out on a stage. 

It was intimidating for Johnathan: Not only was this his first time doing a one-man show, but the subject of the play was sitting in the audience, hanging on his every word. But he killed it; he represented Tiger without impersonating him. Even I was struck with how well he captured the tone and flow of Tiger's voice, especially since he [Johnathan] is Dominican and Tiger is Puerto Rican [and Black]. I think it helped that Johnathan only knew of Tiger and hadn't seen any of his work, so he didn't have any preconceived ideas about him. Several of the actors who auditioned for the role were star struck; a couple even thought they'd be appearing in a film with Tiger!

DLM:  How has Confessions been received among its various viewing audiences? What audiences have been least and most receptive?

JEH: Audiences across the board have been enthusiastic about the piece, especially white gay men and Black SGL women, who are some of his biggest fans. If there's been any one complaint, it's that the performance ends too soon; the show is 45 minutes. But the fact that they wish there was more, that they want to know more about him, is proof that his story is a compelling one. 

DLM: Confessions might be best described as a counter-subcultural work even within the sub-cultural spaces of queer of color America. In other words, it seems to me that this work might be resisted because it is an attempt to bring to the fore sex workers and porn stars in a sub-cultural space that has yet to fully embrace bodies (of all types), sex and/or sex positivity beyond the private sphere. It is one thing to engage Tiger—as a sex object—via media technologies within the personal bedroom space and, yet, another to embrace Tiger—as a human subject—via performance within the public sphere. Do you agree with this assessment?

JEH: Most definitely. In fact, much of the resistance we've received to the production has come from Black/Latino/Blatino SGL men, who don't have a problem buying/downloading Tiger's work and gratifying themselves with it behind closed doors, but don't believe someone like him deserves such a spotlight. Well, porn stars are people, too; they've got a story to tell. And, in Tiger's case, several stories to tell. 

Also, Tiger isn't just a porn star: he's an entrepreneur, a man who created his own multimillion dollar studio, and there are very few Black/Latino/Blatino men in porn, regardless of sexual orientation, who can claim that. And he is his own brand: in addition to the DVDs and dildo, you can even purchase Tiger Tyson lip gloss and Tiger Tyson car freshener! He is a shining example of the American Dream come true, of creating your own. In this stackin' chips/bring on the bling culture, why shouldn't he be applauded and held up as a model?

DLM: Where would you like Confessions to go from here? What audiences? What performance spaces? What other iterations (i.e. book, movie, etc.)?

JEH: We do plan to visit other cities this summer; details are being ironed out for Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Oakland. The long-range plan is to expand the show into a full-length and have a run off-Broadway—and, who knows, maybe even Broadway. The memoir is still in the pipeline, and the film version won't be far behind. There are still so few multidimensional roles for actors of color, and this one has star-making, Tony/Oscar-Winning turn written all over it.

DLM: How has this project changed you as a writer/artist and what are you hopes regarding the change you hope that it produces in the viewer? And, what’s next for you?

JEH: I've spent much of the last two decades writing fiction, so this project provided me with the opportunity to return to my journalistic roots while also stretching my writing chops in another genre.
My hope is that, by the end of the show, people have gotten to know the man behind image; he's so much more than, as he says, the Li'l Kat with the Big Mac.

As far as next steps, I'm still promoting Visible Lives: Three Stories in Tribute to E. Lynn Harris; the response to the collection continues to be overwhelming. The film version of B-Boy Blues goes before the cameras this summer. And the eighth title in the series, Men of the House, and my first short story collection, The Freak Filez, will be released next year.

Darnell L. Moore is a sometimes writer and all-the-time thinker. He is a 2011-2012 Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Sexuality and Gender, New York University. He is presently developing a poetry chapbook and historical fiction novel. He lives and writes in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, USA.