Sunday, June 21, 2009

Interview with BAPF Playwright Robert Henry Johnson

PF Associate Artistic Director Jonathan Spector: You've been a choreographer for much of your Artistic life. How did you begin writing plays?

Robert Henry Johnson: Actually, I grew up in theater. I started out in the theater as an assistant director at the age of three. No, I’m serious. I was the resident assistant director to the Black Light Explosion Company here in San Francisco. My mother was a star member of the ensemble, and she brought me with her to rehearsals all the time. I was quite a disruptive child I was told--all over the place making trouble for everybody.

One day, Keith – the director - announced to the cast, “Okay, everybody. I have a new assistant director I’d like to introduce to you. Everybody meet Bobby.” My mom said I had the strangest look on my face and it completely transformed my relationship with the theater. So that was my first introduction to plays.

For my seventh birthday my mother bought me a yellow toy typewriter. I wrote my first play about two things: spirituality and dance. It was a play about angels and demons and how dance was looked upon as something demonic and the angels had to try to find their relationship with dance as a form of worship and battle. I’m still passionate about those two things. A year later, I graduated to a black Smith Corona antique. The typewriter became my world. I wrote all the time. Instead of going outside to play with the other children, I stayed in and wrote short plays on my typewriter.

J.S.: How is your work as a playwright informed by your dance training and work as a choreographer?

RHJ: Unfortunately we live in a country where art disciplines are separate. I am not sure when the disciplines became chopped up into itty bitty pieces of sushi-like morsels. In other words, if you are a dancer, you are just that and only that. If you are a choreographer, you are that and only that. In my experience throughout my career, I found that that was never true.

Originally when I started my dance company in 1993, I wanted to make work that featured my writing skills. I wanted the artists I worked with to handle text, to speak aloud on stage while dancing. It was going to be a dance/theater company. But the dancers I procured did not know about handling text, and at the time I did not have the craft to train them. I compromised and we became a mostly-dancing-dance company. However, many of my pieces included text. Every season I would make a solo for myself in which I would recite monologues, poetry, prose. It was an aesthetic that was clearly my signature style, and the audience found it refreshing and entertaining. Dance critic Rita Felciano made a statement about my choreography. She said, “Things really start to cook when Johnson the choreographer meets Johnson the writer.” I think that is true.

Of course words and movement can arguably be exacted as quite different mediums. The wonder of how they can be merged to create a seamlessly and equally valued aesthetic is in how the playwright and/or director crafts these disciplines, using them as tools to communicate something impressionable and evocative to the audience. Of course, who knows how verse or dance or a moment in silence or a vocal lilt or the color of a costume will fall on the human heart? This is the exciting part about merging the disciplines.

The Othello Papers does not involve dance. Language dominates this play, though I think there’s a humorous tango between Caliban and Cleopatra. Hopefully, for the sake of this interview, it’ll make the edits.

Instead, I like to think of The Othello Papers as a kind of opera. Maybe it isn’t. And that’s ok. We’re still in the development stages. That’s why everybody should come out and see it. Before it hits Broadway. Wink, wink.

JS: What was the genesis of the Othello Papers?

RHJ: A costume. Well, originally, I wanted to design a one-man show in which I could wear an interesting costume on stage. In my mind, that looked like something Elizabethan inspired. But, since then, I discovered playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and it has put me on a mission to create black characters for the theater that are not popularly seen or offered by history or the media. As I came closer to realizing what the project would look like, I began to ask myself, “Why is this black man dressed like a seventeenth century European?” This began my search for the black presence in old time Euroland. That lead me to Othello, and the play.

JS: As a native San Franciscan, and someone who has been making work here
your entire life, does your work have a specifically Bay Area flavor?

RHJ: I’m sure it does but I wouldn’t know what that was or how to explain it.

JS: What's up next for you?

RHJ: I’m committed to further developing The Othello Papers and getting it a world premiere in 2011. And then, there are the fifty-one drafts of unfinished plays stacked neatly in my room. They haunt me when the sun goes down. All the characters of would be plays are standing in a line in full costume waiting their turn to speak to me and tell me who they are and what they want: Josephine Baker, a French student architect without a name, a black transvestite decocooning in a brownstone in New York City, the three headed dog who guards the brownstone, a young man who keeps blowing a trumpet very badly and a woman with a pink parasol who swears it wasn’t the wind that destroyed New Orleans.

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