Photos Courtesy of Germono Toussaint
Germono Toussaint is a multi-talented lyricist, composer and the Founder/Executive Director of A Mile In My Shoes. He has been performing ever since he was two years old. Toussaint was inspired to pursue a career in music and theater upon seeing a production of Dreamgirls when he was 8 years old. In 2006 Toussaint’s first musical Caged was featured in the Not for Broadway Theater Fest in New York. PrideIndex talked to Toussaint as he was preparing for The First Annual Real Love Concert which takes place on Friday Feb 17 at 7PM at Joe’s Pub. According to marketing materials Real Love was “conceived with the belief that focusing on self-love, self-respect and a positive self-image is central to the betterment of society.” He shared his thoughts on his work, the church, and love.
PRIDEINDEX: You’re involved in many different organizations related to the theater. Tell me a little about some of them and how did you become a thespian?
GERMONO TOUSSAINT: Hum, some of the organizations I am involved in now include The Fire This Time Fest, which is a festival whose mission is to give a platform to African and African American playwrights to explore new voices and new ways of writing in the American theater. We produce fully staged short plays by African American playwrights and those playwrights choose the next playwrights for the next year. They pass the torch to the next group of playwrights and the first group of playwrights gets a full reading of the full length play they had written with the hope that in their third year they will get an actual production. Pia Wilson was a first year playwright, the second year she did a reading of the full length play and now in the third year she has a full production of The Flower Thief that she had read in the second year. My company, A Mile in My Shoes, co-produces the festival along with Mr. Derek Lee McPhatter of Under the Spell Productions, Horse Trade Theater Group and, of course, the founder Kelley Nicole Girod.
PI: So you’re a playwright, composer, arranger, and lyricist you do many things. Why not choose to focus on just one area rather than the multi-platform?
GT: Well that’s been a struggle of mine to choose what I was going to focus on. And I know it’s going to sound like I am bragging but if I was just good at doing just one thing I would have dropped the others. I also studied ballet for 7 years and I was going to get into painting. (LAUGHS). I also studied acting and I trained as a performer, studying anything to do with musical theater such as voice, dance and acting. I’ve been into writing music ever since I was in the second grade so that was my natural born gift, I didn’t have to train for it.
PI: What was the first song you’ve written?
GT: When I was in second grade I wrote an instrumental song. I still have it. I can play it for you now! (AND HE DID!!)
PI: WOW, I’m blown off my feet by what you did in second grade!
GT: (LAUGHS) Yes I still have it and folks we’re amazed that I was playing it in the second grade. (LAUGHS) They would say “how is he is doing that? I hadn’t had many lessons.
PI: I understand that you knew what you wanted to do upon seeing the musical Dreamgirls at the age 8?
GT: My uncle took me to see a production of Dreamgirls that was playing in Milwaukee when I was 8 years old. I remember as I sat there a strong feeling came over me. I could not describe what emotions I felt, it was euphoric. I remember thinking whatever this composer, these actors, and singers were doing to me, I wanted to make other people feel the same.
PI: So have you considered producing your own production of Dreamgirls?
GT: I had planned on it. (LAUGHS) While in high school I was supposed to research the rights to the music thinking I really would do my own production. But there have been so many other productions I just sort of let that go a little bit. There’s probably one popping up every other month now. The production I saw at the Apollo featuring my friend Chester Gregory was probably the best one I’d seen since I was 8 years old.
PI: Let’s talk a little bit about your production company A Mile in My Shoes. What was your muse for that?
GT: It came from two places but let’s talk about the main one. I grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee. I have a relative who’s a pimp and another who’s a prostitute. I was surrounded by alcoholism, drugs and I was the victim of sexual abuse and dysfunctional relationships. I’ve always had an inquisitive mind and wanted to know what caused someone to do what they were doing. I asked what triggered this. I questioned what would cause a person to be a prostitute, or the need to get high. Something happened to give you the desire to abuse another person either sexually, mentally or whatever. My question was what happened? It’s easy to look at another person and say that horrible person is doing horrible things. The saying is true, hurt people, hurt other people. A Mile In My shoes wants to tell these people’s stories so we don’t easily pass judgment because something happened that we can connect to. That’s an important point…something happened that we can relate to that caused them (the hurt) to live a life that we thought we could never live.
I interviewed thirteen women in a halfway house for a musical I wrote called Caged. Surprisingly some of the audience members were very uncomfortable because they realized that as the women were telling their stories some in the audience had the very same upbringing. However, the women in Caged made a turn that went downhill. And that’s what I want to do, show that we’re all connected. I want to show you’re no better than a homeless person on the street because the homeless person on the street was probably once in your position. Understanding other people’s stories will help us to diminish passing judgment and ultimately bring us closer together.
PI: I’ve reviewed clips for your play The Anointed and was touched by that play. How do you decide what to produce?
GT: First I want to say that my goal is not going to be a company where I’m just producing my own work. This season it just sort of happened that way. Right now I cannot afford to commission someone else’s work; I do want to pay people. I happened to have written The Anointed with The Fire This Time Festival and Caged had already had a production in Milwaukee. This year we’re focusing on the LGBT community and women, next year it’s going to be about teens. I would love to commission some new playwrights to write some pieces about teens. I already know which playwrights I want.
The Anointed is partially based on my own experiences. I was an ordained minister for 7 years at (Name withheld) Church in Milwaukee. Bishop (Name withheld) sent my pastors to start a church in Milwaukee. My mom invited me to attend Sunday school or something like that, which lead to prayer service where they’d asked me to play keyboard. I ended up being the keyboardist and two years and later was ordained as the minister of music. (Name withheld) Church started having semi-annual, big conferences and everyone from Tulsa where Bishop (Name withheld)’s church was located started to come to our church to speak. It was traumatic and scary. (LAUGHS) I came out when I was 19 years old but I went back in the closet as a result of the experiences. (Name withheld) Church was not afraid to call people out of the pulpit. They were so dedicated to what they called “holiness.” Forget about homosexuality, cursing was a damnable sin, and so was drinking. In that church everyone was supposed to get married. (LAUGHS) It was very traditional and in a lot of cases just hateful, although they probably don’t see it that way. I was called out twice by “prophets.” One “prophetess” was preaching against homosexuality. I was the only other person on stage as she was talking about how perverse homosexuality was. She said she could not understand how “they” (the ministers in my church) were acting like it was okay because someone else was so talented that “they” would just let “someone” get away with murder and then she stopped and looked at me and then went back to what she was saying as if to make a point that I ‘m taking about this guy on stage! I blocked it out so heavily that I did not realize that’s what had happened until years later! And people in the church would say things to me that I would completely block out because I did not want to believe that everyone knew and was just not saying anything. They never said, “Germono we know that you’re gay, and we don’t like it.” It was never spoken about but it was always in the back of my mind I knew they knew. I remember they would say I was married to Jesus when people asked why I was not dating anyone. (LAUGHS) I had to leave worship and it was very difficult for me to do that because I started to believe the stuff they were telling me as if I was this horrible, sinful perverse person. I remember one Sunday the pastor went into a sermon about Sodom and Gomorrah. He then started to talk about AIDS/HIV and how God was punishing America because we allowed gay people to have rights. In order to punish them he sent AIDS/HIV!
PI: How did you overcome the mistreatment? How did you move on?
GT: The pastors went to a conference in Tulsa. I’d never go because I was scared to death even in my own church so I wasn’t going to go. The ministers would bring videos back for the people that did not go to Tulsa. On this particular day Bishop (Name Withheld) changed his message; this he preached inclusion at the end of the culminating event. He hint at the fact that gay people may be in heaven with the rest of us and that there’s no sin problem between God and man, and maybe we had to rethink certain things. My pastors were confused but they loved the bishop so much they simply said “we don’t understand but we’re not going to come against him.” Something just went up and down my spine and as I was sitting there watching all of this I almost started crying. There were a group of thugs that used to come to our church that used to poke fun at me from the back row. All of a sudden they had to shut up. The energy in the room shifted. Someone had finally told the truth. It dramatically changed me. I started to look up things about inclusion. I read other text in the bible on homosexuality and I started to have dreams about this not being a sin at all. This was how I was made. I shared these dreams and other pastors in church would not respond. After several months of being ignored I went to my pastors and I said I cannot sit behind that keyboard anymore and just shake my head in agreement to what they are preaching. I said I would rather follow the bishop than follow them. (I did not say it in those exact words) butI was liberated so I resigned and I tore up my ordination papers.
PI: Do you attend an affirming church today?
GT: I did attend one in Harlem for a while. (LAUGHS) I actually dated someone in that church. (LAUGHS) But I no longer attend any organized religious ceremonies at this point because it’s just too restricting to me. Even while attending the affirming church there were still too many traditional ways. It made me think, “Why are we still doing this?” They were very good people and I love them, but it was time to move on.
I want to add something else about The Anointed. It’s not just all my story. It was also based on interviews I did on Same Gender Loving (SGL) African American ministers like Bishop Yvette Flunder, Pastor Joseph Tolton, Reverend Kevin Taylor and other well known black ministers.
PI: How did you get them to open up and share their stories?
GT: I’d met Yvette Flunder through another bishop. And connections at the church based in Harlem made it easier to talk with others.
PI: Have you ever considered documenting some of these experiences for a book?
GT: (LAUGHS) I’ve never really talked about my experiences like this before. I guess it could seem fascinating but I never thought anybody would be interested. I would consider it if I had time to actually sit down and write it.
PI: I’ve looked at the trailers for The First Annual Real Love Concert. Are they models? How did the event come about? How did you get them to take their clothes off and smile for the camera? I understand they’re in their underwear or covering up the important parts. How did you get them to stand there in the buff?
GT: These are not models, two of them are performers. The only ones that were standing there in nothing but their underwear are the women but the guys were totally nude. Let me take that back all but one of the women were totally nude. We placed an ad on Craigslist and I guess I underestimated people’s free spirit in New York. You never know why people are challenging themselves to do certain things.
PI: Have you considered putting together the photos in a calendar or photographic exhibit to complement the event.
GT: That would be nice I have not considered doing that but who knows.
PI: Is this event similar to a poetry slam?
GT: I would not say it was a poetry slam because of the music. It’s a mix of the spoken word and music. For the concert there’s a poem written by Shira Elrichman called “How I Walked” and the song right after that is called “Something Crazy.” It’s not like an open mic-type of event. It is staged, it flows.
PI: What do you want audiences to retain from this event, or from the campaign?
GT: I really want them to understand this is one of the most important messages that they will receive and important things they will work on. It may be a cliché to say, “Before you can learn to love somebody else, you have to learn to love yourself,” but it’s true. I really want them to understand several things, loving yourself hinders you from mistreating other people. Loving yourself hinders you from allowing other people to mistreat you. Loving yourself allows you to take care of your body. Loving yourself causes you to eat better. It is a multi-faceted, all encompassing message. It’s the root of how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to other. It takes care of every other area of our lives. I guess I am trying to say that in my mind it’s the most important message that you’ll ever hear.