TITUS ANDROMENDON AND MIRRORS ON 9TH AVENUE
Written by Myles E. Johnson
“I don’t think the public knows what they want to see, until they see it.” - Bette Davis, 1963
For most of my life, my self-concept was grand. I was a star. I was the dangerous shark underneath the sea, or in the 6 foot pool, pulling down friends by their feet playfully in a game we called ‘jaws’. I was destined to be an astronaut, the president, and some reimagining of Oprah. My self-esteem was never low, always ambitious. It was not until later, much later, through the glowing box that sat in the middle of the living room that my self-concept got more modest. It never dawned on me that what was on the television could be a lie. It must be the truth because if it was not, why would it be in the middle of my living room and why would it be taking up so much space? And the truth was, I did not exist. The truth did not break my spirit; it humbled it. It turned my entitlement for the whole wide world into a request. For some children, perhaps the ones who saw their faces and bodies and families in the middle of the living room on the glowing box, this is a positive lesson. For a poor black queer child, this was a trauma.
I am on 9th avenue in New York City in a restaurant and a woman looks at me and her eyes got humongous. It was not hard for me to return the excitement because she was stunning, skin that reminds one of the cosmos, and eyes that may have doubled for planets. It was easy for me to light up by observing her beauty, but I was quite confused as to why she would light up when she saw me. She came to me and said, “Titus!” I looked confused and she repeated the strange word, “Titus!” The light on my face turned into bewilderment. I said, “Excuse me, what?” She responds, “Oh my God. I thought you were Titus Andromendon from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I apologize, have a great day!” This would not be the last time that my physical self, and maybe even parts of my personality, have been compared to both Titus Andromendon and the more reasonable man that brings the character to life, Broadway actor Tituss Burgess.
I had never watched The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, until recently. I have always had a hard time consuming television shows that request you stick with the storyline, episode to episode, season to season; I have things to do. I have always prefered the television show that exists as its own world a la The Twilight Zone, a book, or a film that did not insinuate the needs to be a sequel. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broke me. I was curious about this character that not only looked like me, but held a spirit that was similar to mine. And apparently had enough spirit and history in the television show for people to love him, not just be amused by his cartoonish version of femininity that we often see when feminine, black gay men are on television. Usually there is no connection, just gawking.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about a white woman who recently escaped from a cult and found her way into New York City, and amongst many New York City stereotypes, including the gay artist Titus Adromendon, played by Tituss Burgess. It is campy, satirical, and funny, and when it is not funny, it is because it is lazy in a way that is not rare for most mainstream, liberal-leaning comedy.
The Titus character lives in this space for me. I think there are times where the character’s hysteria, charm, and wit bounce off of my laptop with such masterful command of the script and the screen, that I understand the woman on 9th avenue with the skin and the eyes and why she would be so happy to see me if I was in fact Titus Andromendon. He is the ridiculousness we rarely get to see performed, but viewing it is liberating. Most comedic black characters that are successful operate in this way. They do what most want to do, but can never do. From ShaNayNay’s unhinged femininity (“Martin”), Tiffany ‘New York’ Pollard’s humorous cruelty, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s down-home bluntness, or Joanne Prada’s comical transgressions against capitalism; black people in any world of comedy are usually the vehicles of a self that we are taught shouldn’t ever be expressed or we’re at risk of social ostracization. Titus Andromendon follows in this tradition. He is self-involved, above it all, and has no use for any conception of humility.
As I got older and more involved in media, one of the things I was routinely told was how the public didn’t want to know bodies and personalities like mine. Even in my adulthood, I returned to that child that believed the glowing box, except these were people in powerful positions. I was just as silly as an adult to follow their truth over what I knew for myself as a child.
Titus challenges those experiences. Titus Adromendon serves as a kind of healing to my self-image that took that blow at such a young age. The performance is not a flawless remedy that has the capacity to undo the harm that is done to all when black femme men aren’t represented in media, but it does begin to clean the mirror. It gets rid of the smoke, and begins to show a reality that we are here, albeit in this ridiculous version of New York City that doesn’t touch a soulful realism as queer, black drama Moonlight.
The connection momentarily fails when I see Titus participate in a romantic relationship with a white man, and it makes me wonder if this is not also another technique to humanize the often dehumanized black, femme man. Is whiteness being used as a way to make him feel relatable and accessible to the intended audience? And I think of countless essays by black gay men that focus on the desire for romantic love from white men, and I wonder if this representation is a misrepresentation, or if it is simply just a truth I have not yet began to reconcile with. Black gay men love white masculinity, often and relentlessly, and despite their well-being. Either way, there is a type of annihilation that happens when the only time you see black, feminine gay men arrive at humanity it is through a white or non-black person, as if the white partner is saving them from the monstrous black destiny just by being present and in love with their black partner; as if a black man with another black man would could only end in a nightmare, an abyss full of violence, disease, and suffering. I think of the black gay character Omar from The Wire, his murdered romantic partners and dismal fate. In that moment, media told us that this is the only possible reality for a black man loving another black man. Essex Hemphill wrote in his poem Now We Think, “Now we think as we fuck this nut might kill. This kiss could turn to stone.” This sentiment seems to haunt all tales of the black gay man as their destiny, but Hemphill did die from complication from AIDs, so as limiting as the narrative is, it is also wrong to call it a falsehood.
This is the caveat: the job of media is never to simply mirror realities or truths. All media is fantasy. All stories are possibilities. I return to the woman who thought she saw me on 9th avenue, and before she realized I was not Titus, her emotions and her engagement with her truth —a lie— but her truth at the time, was real. The joy was real. The lies I was told in my childhood by the television and in my adulthood by the important people with the power produced real feelings, real reactions, and had consequences in a real life. This is the exciting thing about black, femme gay representation and in this case Titus Adromendon; he is a mirror for me, with flaws, that has the potential to create a fantasy, a false history, that could birth a reality for those that identify with the comedic character. Titus Adromendon, through over-dramatics and humor, creates a possibility for an identity often only offered violences, and that is why I’m proud to know I look like him. Because he is, finally, a kind of more honest (and ridiculous) mirror reflection of myself than I’ve ever seen in media before.