Love in the Bluff City
True tales of dating, breaking up, and getting married.
For Valentine's Day, we decided to take a look at love in Memphis - how we try to get it, how we break up, and how to keep it going. I talked to five Memphians, asking for their perspectives.
Welcome to Junt Land ♥
Munirah Safiyah Jones was raised in Memphis as one of 10 children. "It was hectic, it was fun, and it shaped me into the clown I am now. My mom, who was a legendary stage actress, introduced me and my siblings early and often to the arts. I don't have a memory of there not being theater or music or dance or storytelling of some kind in the home. It really helped me to shape my art, to appreciate the magic in the magic-making."
Jones is the creator of Junt Land, a web series set in what she calls "a female driven satirical universe. ... It initially started with just my dating woes. It's terrible out there."
To prove her point, at a recent Indie Memphis Shoot & Splice presentation, Jones asked her audience to raise their hand if they were dating and enjoying it. Only one hand was raised in the packed house.
That's why a growing audience has found that Junt Land speaks to them, and why Jones has found herself in that most enviable and scary of 21st-century positions - a grassroots viral hit.
Early last year, Jones created an animated video called "Dating in 2018 - How Men Communicate." The writer/director did both voices ("out of necessity") of a date between a bright, talkative young woman and a dull, monosyllabic man. The video quickly racked up more than 200,000 YouTube views, and hundreds of thousands of views on other social media channels - not counting the exposure that came when the video was ripped-off wholesale by other comedians.
"It's something that a lot of women can relate to in the age of a lot of men texting us with minimal effort expecting maximum results," says Jones. "It's frustrating. I don't know if there needs to be a men of America meeting, where everybody sits down and discusses the things that are acceptable and unacceptable. ... Communication in the age of social media and texting is a monster that our parents didn't have to slay, and it's one that is particularly scary and frustrating. Now, everything's a swipe, and nobody knows how to talk to anybody in real life. It's frustrating, and it's ridiculous, and it's alarming. It fascinates me and horrifies me."
Jones defines a junt as "a lover, a potential lover, someone we find attractive, someone we want to objectify. I call all my men junts. Junt Land is really about exploring the various ways in which women, who have historically and traditionally been viewed as junts, navigate through this world, how we choose to opt in and out of this construct, what we learn and what we choose to ignore from our life lessons."
Junt Land is a mix of animated and live-action videos defined solely by what's on Jones' mind at the time: "Black Girl Magic, communication, toppling the patriarchy, and self-awareness. These four concepts form the connection of all of my sketches," she says.
Jones, whose first name means "one who enlightens" in Arabic, hopes Junt Land's blunt honesty can help her audience take a look at their own lives while they're laughing. "There's a lot of fear, in women, of being alone. So we put up with a lot. There are a lot of toxic relationships out there and a lot of unnecessary testimonies, just because women let fear rule them. It's unfortunate, but it's something I like to explore.
"I find that, specifically as a woman, my peace is constantly interrupted. It's by messages from self and from society. How I should look, what I should say, how to get a man, whose plate I should fix first. There I was, laid out on the beach, looking at this impossibly blue water, wondering if I should freeze my eggs - just interrupting the life that I have with thoughts of a life that I might not even necessarily want. Self-care is so important for women in a world where we are constantly inundated with how we're not good enough, what we need to be doing, what we should be doing. It's just the ultimate form of control."
The Stuff Whisperer ♥
If you've ever had a breakup, you know that, aside from the yelling and the throwing things and the crying and balancing your renewed fear of dying alone with the urgent need to get this demon who is making your life miserable out of your house, the hardest part is dealing with your stuff. Katie McWeeney is here to help - at least with your stuff.
McWeeney is a consultant who specializes in optimizing living spaces. "In a weird way, I'm playing therapist, too. I'm having to dig through things that their grandmother gave them, and help them make decisions on whether they want to keep it, and how do you display that to honor it?"
In the years she's been at this job, she says, "I've come to find that the common theme is usually people in transition. I've worked with people who are moving in together for the first time and don't know how to marry their things and also get rid of things."
When McWeeney is called to help a new couple, she slips in to therapist mode. "It's sitting down with the couple and leading conversations that they will probably have over time, but I'm just nipping it in the bud. ... I have to get them to open up. Moving in with someone is so difficult, because you learn so much about a person over time. What do you eat? How do you cook? How frequently do you do laundry? It's those kind of things that I can help pick up on the front end. I think it helps the relationship in the long term, so they don't have to figure it out on their own. ... You're marrying your furniture together. You don't know how to make it look good. It's yours, it's theirs, you don't know how to mix it all together.
"That to me is the ultimate fulfillment: Seeing the clients walk into a space after I've worked on it and hearing, 'This makes sense. I don't know how you did it, but this makes sense.'"
The other big romantic transition is breaking up. "I'll do a walk-through with the couple. I'll ask, what do you want to keep? Who wants to keep what? What do you want to get rid of. Is it going to separate houses, or storage units? I'll figure out the logistics. I think the experience of going through a divorce gave me sympathy and empathy for people who are going through these transitions, because they're not easy."
Late in 2017, McWeeney was hired by a couple who was ending a 12-year relationship. They were leaving town for several weeks in December. While they were gone, McWeeney would do her work. "She had moved out, but they still had a lot of their things in the house. They were also raising children who were growing up, and they just had a lot of things to get rid of."
She interviewed the couple. "For him, it was, 'I want to have a dedicated space for my music studio.' So I set up an ideal space for him to come back to without buying anything. ... Since he was out of town, I was staying at the house. I do this a lot, because I had to set up an estate sale, wake up at 5 a.m., and open the sale at 7 a.m. The night he got home, I was cooking some dinner on the stove, and Tom Petty was playing. He said it was weird. He had come home after so long away, and the house was completely different. We ended up staying up and talking for hours. We had known each other for a long time. We both wanted to do sober January, so we ended up hanging out a lot. It just kind of transformed into a relationship."
Now, a year later, they're still together. "I'd like to put on the record that this is not a typical service I provide to all clients."
The Break-Up Show Girl Gets Married ♥
For the last seven years, one of the city's biggest comedy events has been "The Break-Up Show." Savannah Bearden, Bruce Bui, Jamie Hale, Dustin Holden, Brandon Sams, and Drew Smith have collected stories of relationship dissolution from hundreds of Memphians.
"I've learned that if you think you have it bad, someone else 100 percent has it worse in ways you would never, ever imagine," says Bearden. "Being super hot or attractive doesn't make things any easier for you. I've realized that these breakup stories, these dating horror stories, are one of the biggest bonders of people. You wouldn't believe how many people would come up to me after shows, or at a bar, and start pouring their hearts out to me, because I'm 'The Break-Up Show' Girl.
"The story that always stands out is one where this girl was dating a guy long-distance, and they go to a hotel together in the middle of Alabama. They get drunk in the hotel room and, long story short, it ends with her pulling her tampon out and throwing it at the guy's face, and then punching him. Then they woke up the next day and had make-up sex.
"What's even funnier to me is, the person who sent us the story was the girl who was waving the tampon. It was cathartic for her. We're just lucky that people trust us with all of their feminine hygiene-related material."
But the era of "The Break-Up Show" may be ending, with a final one this summer. "We all started out single, and now there's one man standing," says Bearden. "We figured after I got married and Bruce Bui got married, we had to do one more, only to make fun of how irrelevant we are."
Bearden's road to irrelevance started in 2013, when she met Danny Bader in the WKNO studios on the set of Professor Ghoul's Horror School. "I thought he was so cute, and asked the producer if he was single."
Two years later, the pair reconnected at the Hot Wing Festival. "I was in the middle of what I like to call my 'Spring Sluttery Tour.' I had just gotten out of a relationship, and I was dating a few guys. I was feeling myself. So when I started dating Danny in the midst of that, I thought he was a really great guy, but I'm not done with my Sluttery Tour yet! I really was scared I was going to lose relevance. But luckily, I'm not a complete idiot, and I chose to pursue a relationship with Danny instead of breaking it off because I wanted my comedy show to be better."
Bearden's biggest wish was to be the first wedding performed at the Crosstown Concourse. But other than that, she had few preconceptions. "It was fun just to figure out what people don't do at a wedding. So of course we had a drag show."
After the ceremony in the Crosstown Concourse's East Atrium, and a reception in Crosstown Arts, the drag show, which Bearden describes as "tastefully sized" kicked off the raucous part of the party. "I hear new stories about what happened at our wedding once a week, at least," Bearden says. "Some of them are hilariously shocking, and I won't say them in print. I think some 'Break-Up Show' stories started at our reception."
For those getting ready to plan their big day, Bearden says, "Figure out what kind of party you want to go to. Don't read the wedding websites. This is a party that can be whatever you want it to be. Have fun with it. Don't let family or weird people tell you what to do, because people just get weird around weddings. Emotions are high. Just figure out what makes you have fun, and just do it. Make it the biggest party of your life."
The Newlyweds ♥
Brantley Ellzey met Jim Renfrow for the first time at Theatre Memphis in 1988. "I was in rehearsals for a show, and Jim was stage managing Biloxi Blues at the time," he recalls. "I saw Jim in this Army uniform, and I thought he was really attractive. But he was very, very quiet, and it was difficult to get him to talk."
Ellzey was brash and outgoing, while Renfrow was quieter and more measured. "I was almost completely in the closet at age 34," he says. "I'm not a social person the way Brantley is. He's very gregarious, very outgoing. I'm a loner; I enjoy being at home by myself. But two years before we met, I decided to audition at Theater Memphis and did shows nonstop. It was a way to get out, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. ... Brantley, thankfully, was persistent in seeking me out. I would have just hung out and done nothing."
The Midtown of the 1980s was something of an oasis for homosexuals in an intolerant world. "There was a thriving gay scene in Memphis - many more gay bars than there are now. There was George's, Reflections, and there was a cowboy bar ... but it was all so undercover," says Ellzey.
The couple finally got together during a production of Once Upon a Mattress. "The theater community at that time was very close. We would rehearse together, then go out drinking together," says Ellzey.
"We're still very close to so many of that same group of people from 31 years ago," says Renfrow.
"And they're stunned that we're still together," says Ellzey.
Over the course of their three-decade relationship, Renfrow and Ellzey have seen profound change in social attitudes toward their relationship. "Neither of us ever really came out to our parents in a dramatic way," says Ellzey. "My parents were in town visiting, and I drove them by the house that Jim and I were buying. My mother said, 'Now, Brantley, what is going to happen if one of you boys wants get married?' I just let it sit in the air, and didn't say anything. And she said 'Not that I think that either of you ever will.' But then, the nicest thing was, when we moved in, both sets of parents came and helped us, and got to know both of us."
"I came out when I changed jobs," says Renfrow. "I worked for a small insurance broker for 10 years, but in 1993 I moved to International Paper. I decided then I was out, and I was completely out. One of the reasons I went to work for them was that they had a written nondiscrimination policy. I just retired a month ago."
Ellzey says by the mid-'90s, social attitudes were relaxing."People don't realize how awful it was, even casual interactions. People would ask what I was doing this weekend, and I would say, 'Me and my buddy Jim are ...' You're trying to shade it, so it's not really clear. It was very weird. I remember when my boss said, 'We're having a party. Please bring your significant other.' I thought, 'I can bring Jim to this! Everybody knows! I don't have to bring a girl and pretend!'"
When same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015, Ellzey and Renfrow were among the first gay people in Shelby County to get a marriage license. "I think weddings are about beginnings," says Ellzey. "When you've lived a lifetime together, it takes on a whole different meaning. It was a very long engagement."
The couple decided their wedding should be an intimate affair, so they snuck off to New York to get hitched in Grand Central Station on Valentine's Day 2016. "Our first thought was to get two of New York's finest to be witnesses. Jim's father was a police officer, so I thought it would be a good gambit," says Ellzey.
But police regulations prevented that from happening, so Ellzey approached a random couple who looked like tourists. "The guy was this great big lumberjack type, and the girl was very petite. He said, 'Is this a scam?'"
A few minutes later, the guy was tearing up as he filmed the ceremony with Ellzey's iPhone. "People were stopping on their commutes. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it. They wanted to watch our vows. When we said 'I do' and kissed, there was this huge applause! Then, everybody just kept going."
Looking back on the sweep of their relationship, the couple says they feel lucky to have lived through such a sea-change. "It's very gratifying to us to see the younger people plan a wedding, and it's not radical. It's normalized," says Ellzey. "The most radically political act you can do as a gay person is be yourself."
Special thanks to our
models Rosalyn R. Ross,
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