"Fritz and Adrian had been together for five years. Initially they had tried to be sexually exclusive. After failing several times the two men came to an understanding, their relationship was about emotional monogamy. Not sexual monogamy."
Kwame Stephens' collection of short stories, Dark Hard Chocolate, is filled with gay sex. Specifically sex between black gay men. And even more specifically with the difficulties of turning that sex into love, commitment and acceptance, despite the barriers of family expectations, religious disapproval and some very constricting closets.
The collection begins with "Street," a bleak coming out story most notable for being charmingly grounded in Toronto landmarks. Oddly the mother's progression and suffering evoke the most empathy, but the young mens' sexual exploration and confusion is deftly, if starkly, sketched.
The collection ends with "Dark Hard Chocolate" which continues the story of the protagonists Damien and Emmanuel of Stephens' most acclaimed work, the play Man2Man. What does happen after a same-sex wedding? Unfortunately happy-ever-after is a great way to finish a play but a rather dramatically slight place to begin a story. Although the newly-weds have a lot of sex, there is not any conflict or tension to make their journey compelling.
It is the creamy centre of Dark Hard Chocolate that offers the most pleasure. Fittingly for a playwright, the driving dialogue crackles in "Memories Lane" and "Lady C!" climaxing in "YOLO," where an utterly distinctive voice guides us into an erotic and emotional space that the third person doesn't seem to allow Stephens. Similarly the sexual fantasy happening in the head of Andre at the beginning of "Looking for Pride" is where the pages actually catch fire. The characters, for the most part, seem to be also trapped in a grammatical closet where they are having a lot of sex but it is very politely and discreetly portrayed. For a renowned poet Stephens uses a paucity of descriptors. Each sex scene features the revelation of a "smooth ass" (except for the fourth, "Thabo and Dev," where a "supple slightly hairy ass" is revealed), the unwrapping and donning of Trojan Magnum condoms, and then ends with the handing over of a box of tissues for clean up.
Sex is as problematic as love for the Dark Hard Chocolate characters and that is an intriguing area to be explored. "Rickie on the Rocks" depicts the dilemma of two bottoms in love; Kofi in "The Arrangement" suffers horribly when "the hard dick he was addicted to" is forced into an opposite-sex marriage; Fritz and Adrian from "Texting, Texting, Texting," are not only negotiating an open relationship but one is into "swirling" while the other is exclusively into black men. This comes up again in "Looking for Pride" where an intriguing dialogue ensues:
"So are you like your friend who limits himself to only black guys?"
"I don't limit myself," Gilles protested. "I just like to be with my own kind.
Nothing wrong with that."
As it turns out there is, in "Looking for Pride," a lot wrong with Gilles' restrictions: the sexual encounter, and all of its romantic potential, goes tragically wrong. Stephens is dealing with some very volatile subject matter, that definitely needs to be discussed, in a very matter-of-fact manner. More please.
Stephens also excels at letting a detail carry the emotional weight that the characters can't express: Fritz, discovering that "making love is better than Grindr," is unable to continue a nsa hook-up while there is a wedding photo watching from the mantel. Man2Man was notable for being groundbreaking, now that that is accomplished, Stephens feels free to expand and the result is the best story in the collection, "Memories Lane." A trip to purchase a Fleshlight as a gift turns into a mediation on Toronto's gay history, black gay literature, aging and relationships.
"You and I both know that we can find sex any time. A friendship spanning over ten years between two gay men is to be treasured."
Stephens is using explicit sex and the black gay voice to get to truths that speak to us all.