J. J. Johnson, who extends his talents as a DC stage actor (recently, Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of A Native Son) into film and and commercial work, now adds playwright to his resumé with the debut of WANNABE. Produced by 4615 Theatre Company, the Zoom performance can be seen starting this Thursday, July 23rd at 8pm, streamed on Facebook.
WANNABE is a semi-autobiograpical play about growing up Black in the mostly White town of Front Royal, VA. The writing was triggered by a funny story from childhood, and would have remained just a memory were it not for J.J.’s wife, Sonal, so we began our conversation there.
“Sonal thought the story was funny, so I developed it into a scene. Wrote and saved it. She would check-in with me from time-to-time to see if I had started developing that scene into a play, but I always found excuses. Her persistence, an offer to write a one-minute play for the 1-Minute Play Festival and an acting dry spell finally propelled me to sit down in 2017 and write WANNABE. My hard drive is littered with several starts of plays.”
WANNABE is the first play for which Johnson got to type “The End.” So we asked to hear that story.
“I had a sleepover with my best friend, Cory, who is also Black. It was 1981 and we were flipping through channels on a small, dusty black & white television, when we ran across the special ‘Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters.’ Well, we fell in love. So much so, we started taking turns kissing this dusty television. Not sure if it was the dust or the static electricity, but our lips began burning, and we started panicking. The last thing I remember is both of us dashing to the bathroom and turning the faucet on high and gulping what felt like gallons of water.”
I see WANNABE is, at least in part, a comedy. Who are your comedy influencers?
“While there are certainly tragic elements in the script, I really wanted this play to overall be fun for the artists, as well as the audience. I have always loved comedy and try to incorporate it whenever possible, in acting and real life. I grew up on a wide array of comedy influences, from Looney Tunes, Mork & Mindy, Fat Albert, the Cosby Show. I eventually discovered stand-up comedy and loved Eddie Murphy, Howie Mandel, Rita Rudner, Sinbad, Whoopi Goldberg and Steven Wright. I loved Monty Python, Def Comedy Jam, the Naked Gun films, Mel Brooks. I think they all inform my comedy in some way, maybe, though I am also trying to learn from where their comedy may have been problematic.”
When people from Front Royal watch the show, will they recognize themselves?
“I think a couple of my hometown people may recognize themselves in the play. I think many more would recognize some of the events that occur in the play, even though the details may have been altered. There are events that made national news, like the closing of Avtex Fibers in the late 1980s. That people would definitely recognize. There are events like a classmate who took his life in middle school because of bullying that have always haunted me, and it’s alluded to in the script.”
What was it like to grow up in Front Royal?
“Retrospectively, growing up in Front Royal is not unlike growing up in other working-class, industrial, predominately White, Southern small towns. What may have been somewhat unique is that I grew up in a neighborhood, the Royal Village, that was predominantly working-class/poor and White.
“There were a few Black families around, but most of the Black population lived in two other neighborhoods on different sides of town. While the culture of our neighborhood was pretty much all the kids played together from sun-up to sun-down, these kids were carrying with them the attitudes of their parents who I now imagine experienced the desegregation of schools and businesses just a decade prior.
“Those attitudes rub off, so whenever there was racial tension, even at the youngest ages, White kids would dole out a racial slur and a fight would ensue. Then, by the end of the day, everyone would be playing together again. Then once I entered school, I started to meet and become friends with the more middle-class White kids, because I was pretty quickly placed in advanced classes.
“I will say that grade school is when the nuances of racial dynamics really begin to take shape. The microaggressions from well-intentioned White teachers who are trying to adjust to their one Black student really helped me to tune in to how self-conscious people can become when in the presence of an “other.” There is so much to still uncover about the long-lasting effects, but I recently, in talking with a friend on Facebook, shared how I used to think Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were my heroes too. That kind of sums up the identity crisis that our education system has imposed on its Black student population.”
“One of my biggest frustrations in the years following the murder of Trayvon Martin and the rise of Black Lives Matter is how Black kids are not given the same space to be kids as their White counterparts. Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old kid playing with a toy gun. I understand that. I had toy guns and I played openly in broad daylight. There are so many voices from White media and White communities who jump on the bandwagon of dehumanizing Black children, label them “thugs” before taking the time to empathize with children and with a family grieving loss.
“I grew up with a lot of White kids, hung out with them, partied with them. They broke laws too, but they were never the focus of policing. And even in the court of law, we see young white men get away with rape because the White male judge does not want to see their potential destroyed. There is a discrepancy in sympathy. The message is White children have potential; Black children are disposable. If we can change that programming, we could unravel a lot of heartache.
“I WISH I had the resources that young people have nowadays to explore any and every dream they could ever have. They have the internet — Youtube, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram or just Google. I know there are kids who still feel isolated, and there is no real way for them to understand how great these resources can be, compared to when we grew up and if we wanted to connect to dreams it could take months or even years to connect to the proper resources. They don’t have the frame of reference nor the years to know that.
“I was recently re-introduced to this quote from the Great Michael Jordan: “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” Every one success comes on the back of a thousand failures. Find your community and your support and invest only in those that truly mean you well. Rise together.”
How do you define family and community?
“I feel like my family spans the entire I-66 corridor. From DC to Prince William County, they mostly consist of my theatre/film community. There’s some overlap in Prince William, but then west of there, those are my blood relatives.
“I feel fortunate to have the theatre family that I do. I started doing theatre here in 1997, but it was in 2000 when I really met the people who are my foundation here: Jennifer L. Nelson, Deidra Starnes, Jefferson Russell, Kenyatta Rogers, Thembi Duncan, Psalmayene 24, David Lamont Wilson and so many others. They are my roots in this community. My blood relatives west of I-66 are a dynamic mix of personalities. Some of the funniest and most loving people one could ever wish to meet.”
What do you hope Thursday’s audience and all future audiences will take away from WANNABE?
“WANNABE lets you grow up with extremely lovable Black kids, and after you fall in love with them, you may see them make choices that challenge your perceptions. Will you be as quick to dismiss them as “thugs” after you get to know them? Ultimately, it’s humanizing humans, not only for a White audiences, but my hope is that it humanizes children for an adult audience.”
The 4615 Theatre Company performance of WANNABE by J. J Johnson, directed by Reginald Richard, premieres Thursday, July 23 at 8pm. Free to view. Watch here.