Connect with us

Features

Exclusive! Jeffrey Johnson Talks Ragtime Tour and Playing Booker T. Washington

Broadway Black

Published

on

I was 13 years old when the original production of Ragtime opened on Broadway.  A friend of mine played “Little Girl” in the original cast and invited me to her new show.  I had recently become obsessed with the score from Once On This Island, so seeing another show composed by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens piqued my interest. But having experienced other “traditional” Broadway productions, I was convinced musical theater was NOT my thing.

The lights dimmed, I restlessly prepared for what could be an agonizing next three hours, and the overture began.  To say it truly was “the music of something beginning” could sound cliché, but honestly, the stirring in my spirit was palpable.  From the start, it was simply the most beautiful combination of expression I had ever experienced.  A stunning score, paired with brilliant direction, simply raised to supremacy by an outstandingly capable cast (side note: in addition to a love for theater, this experience would also incite an eternal obsession with one Ms. Audra McDonald), and most of all, a great story.

Ragtime

Nearly 20 years later, the cast of the Ragtime national tour is telling that story, based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, in theaters all across the country.  The tour, which recently opened in Las Vegas, has shows scheduled throughout the U.S. through the spring of 2016.

I recently had a chance to catch up with actor, friend and certified hoot, Jeffrey Johnson II  (Dreamgirls, Hair, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ragtime, Hairspray) to discuss his newest task of taking on the role of Booker T. Washington in the national cast

Broadway Black (BB): Tell us about your role.
I play Booker T. Washington in the national tour of Ragtime.  I’m one of the historicals interwoven into this fictional story.  In a search for justice, Coalhouse decides to take over the Morgan Library and Booker T. comes in as the mediator.  He’s the voice of reason after this tumultuous situation.  

BB: What have you learned about Booker T. Washington since taking on this role? 
We all know he’s such a great influence, not only in Black history but really in American history.  He had such an incredible sense of honor and labor.  He somehow found his way to Hampton University and worked as a janitor to get into school.  Even the Tuskegee Institute, he built that school.  If they weren’t in class, he and his students were literally building that campus.

BB: Did you already know these things about him or did you do some research?
I researched.  Taking on this role, I wanted to know exactly what I was stepping into.  I picked up the book “Up From Slavery” thinking ‘oh, this will be a good summer read.’  I finished it in three days! It was just so interesting!

BB: What have you learned about yourself as a performer since taking on this role? 
*Johnson was originally called in for the ensemble but, after auditioning, offered to read the part of Booker T. Washington for the assistant director, ultimately securing him the principal role.*
I feel like the director took a big leap entrusting me with this role.  I knew I was younger than some of the men who had played this part before, but I knew I could do it.   I had to trust my gut.  Sometimes you gotta show up, do what you do and hope for the best.

BB: Marcia Milgrom Dodge helmed the Tony nominated revival in 2009.  How was it working with her for this production?
Marcia is incredibly knowledgeable about theater and she is incredibly knowledgeable about this script and this score.  It was a little daunting, but also thrilling because I don’t know anybody who could tell this story this well.  [In reference to those commenting on Dodge’s stripped down adaptation]  I’m a vegan so I think in terms of – she’s juiced it.  She’s taken all the necessary pieces and leaves the audience with everything it needs.

BB: Why do you think this story needs to be told?
When Ahrens and Flaherty created this show, they were referencing subject matter from the early 1900’s, and they thought we were past it.  You know, race, immigration… But life is cyclical and we’re back at the place where we have to talk about these issues.  I hope it will generate conversations in the communities we are able to reach because we really got a long way to go.

To find Ragtime playing at a theater near you, visit HERE.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 5.42.54 AM

Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Features

Photo Exclusive: Step into The Light with Broadway Black

Drew Shade

Published

on

Have you seen The Light by Loy A. Webb at MCC Theater? If you haven’t, then you need to and Broadway Black has got you. Join us on SUNDAY MARCH 3rd for the BWAYBLK Experience!

Use code BWAYBLACKMCC and pay $35 for any seat on Mar 3 at the 7:30 performance

Not every marriage proposal goes as planned. LOY A. WEBB’s THE LIGHT  introduces us to RASHAD and GENESIS on what should be one of the happiest days of their lives, but their joy quickly unravels when ground-shifting accusations from the past resurface in this gripping two-character drama. Can their relationship survive the growing divide between them over who–and what–to believe?

Also, get into this amazing photo series of playwright Loy A. Webb & the cast of her play The Light.  Photos by Curtis Brown were taken in the new elegantly designed and strategically welcoming Robert W. Wilson MCC theater space. Located in midtown New York on 52nd and 10th ave (511 W 52nd ST
New York, NY 10019)

On another tip, some really dope creatives will do a talkback after the Saturday matinee performance that you might be interested in attending. Make sure to RSVP.

Panelists include: Nissy Aya, Cristina Pitter, Alicia Rodis & Kavita Mehra

THIS WEEKEND SAT FEB 23rd

LOY A. WEBB’s THE LIGHT at MCC Theater delves deeply into one couples’ reckoning with an encounter with sexual violence that has left audiences asking: as a partner, a family member, a friend, how do we support sexual assault survivors? And what responsibility do artists have to create work that is trauma-informed? On SAT FEB 23 at 4:00 PM for an in-depth conversation about the power of allyship rooted in love and healing – in our lives and on our stages – in the face of trauma.

SAT FEB 23 at 4PM
THE ROBERT W. WILSON MCC THEATER SPACE
511 W52 ST

RSVP HERE.

Continue Reading

Features

A Superhero On & Off The Stage, Camille A. Brown Brings ink

Drew Shade

Published

on

Camille A. Brown Photo by Whitney Browne

Camille A. Brown Photo by Whitney Browne

Camille A. Brown‘s dance company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, tours nationally and internationally and will be presenting six performances featuring the debut of ink at The Joyce Theater NYC Feb 5-10th 2019.

Propelled by the live rhythms and sounds of traditional African and handmade instruments, Camille A. Brown’s ink celebrates the rituals, gestures, and traditions of the African diaspora. Highlighting themes of brotherhood, community, and resilience, the work seeks to reclaim African American narratives and is the final installment of Brown’s dance theater trilogy about identity.

In addition to her company works, Ms. Brown brings her passion for storytelling to her award-winning choreography for Broadway, Television, and Off-Broadway. Productions include Tony Award Winning Once On This Island, (Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Chita Rivera award nominations), Emmy Award Winning Jesus Christ Superstar Live on NBC, A Streetcar Named DesireChoir Boy, the upcoming Magic Mike The Musical, PAL JOEY. 

We had the chance to probe a little bit into the world of Camille A. Brown, and we’re grateful for the insight and wisdom with which she was able to bless us. Check out the interview below along with an excerpt from ink.

Broadway Black (BB): After forming the idea, what was the process of building ink?

Camille A. Brown (CAB): After the creative process for BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, I held a desire to dig even deeper and tell more stories of ritual, gestural vocabulary, and traditions of the African Diaspora. I was immediately drawn to two albums that had a significant impact on me when I was growing up. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, and Like Water for Chocolate by Common. I tasked myself with creating a movement language that embodied the same raw authenticity, and vulnerability that fuels those lyrics and music.

As I began to develop the concept for ink, I wanted the dancers to represent superheroes. I couldn’t figure out why I had the urge to play with this idea until I read Question Bridge: Black Males in America. One of the men interviewed said, “I see Black people as comic book heroes because they always keep rising.” That was it! It is about showing that in our basic survival, and natural attributes we have superhuman powers. Powers to shift, overcome, transform, and persevere even within an often hostile environment. The seven sections of ink represent super powers of spirituality, history and heritage, the celebration of the Black female body, Black love, brotherhood, exhaustion, and community.
The process involves a deep collaboration with the dancers and my direction is guided by their choice making.

The space is very organic and fueled by research. My dancers, musicians, dramaturgs, and I are in constant dialogue throughout the process about the work and how it’s progressing. We don’t move forward unless we’re all on the same page.

We are building the work together. As a disclaimer, I let everyone know the process will be exceptionally tedious. Like a fine comb, I go through each beat, gage the temperature of storylines, and make sure the movement and music are always in conversation (whether aligned or in contrast).

BB: What made you want to start your own dance company and how have you sustained?

CAB: I found my love of choreography in college because I struggled with body image, and found that creating my own voice was a safe and empowering space. After graduating, I danced with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence for 5 seasons and during my second year with The Company, a friend from college (Amy Page) sent me a flyer for the Hubbard Street 2 competition which picks 3 choreographers to create work on the Company. I was chosen! That gave me the encouragement to pursue choreography. My first idea was to take an alias like female writers used to do because even at 22, I knew the playing field was not leveled and women (particularly black women) did not get as much exposure as male choreographers. Dance is revealing and vulnerable so taking an alias wasn’t a realistic option. People would have to see me as I am, but I also needed the confidence to withstand the obstacles. Not only that, having a company seemed daunting.
Ron wore so many hats. He was the director, choreographer, teacher, and also took on administrative duties. He never got a break. I wasn’t confident I could handle all of the duties.

I set work on other companies, but soon realized it wasn’t for me. 1-4 weeks working with a Company wasn’t enough time for me to really hone my skills, find my voice, and discover my personal creative process. I desired a more intimate relationship and space with my dancers and collaborators. I had my first show at Joyce SoHo in 2006, and committed to having a company in 2010.

What sustains CABD is my team. I have a company agent (Pamela Green), Managing Director (Indira Goodwine), Company Manager (Michelle Fletcher), and a production team who holds things down.

In the beginning, I was doing ALL the jobs! As time went on, my team slowly formed. It’s really about patience and perseverance. Nothing happened over night and everything is a progression.

BB: How have you had to be a superhero in your own life personally and professionally?

CAB:

Personally
Last year, I had a life-threatening experience. My appendix ruptured on tour. Appendicitis is when they remove your appendix before it ruptures, but mine actually did and the fluid was in my system for at least a week. I survived the “fatal” stage- which the doctors told me isn’t common. This started a very long year and a half which included 4 hospital stints and two surgeries (my second one was in April). This all happened during Once on This Island (I was in the hospital the first week of rehearsal and had my first surgery during tech), Jesus Christ Superstar Live, and my Company touring. I had to access my “superpowers” and push through, but thankfully I had my team and community to help me.
I’m going to be writing about the entire ordeal because it was such an integral part of my life. People see the “success”, but if they only knew the hardships I had to overcome to get to the other side.

Professionally

Being a Black female Choreographer and Director is hard. People ask me to do I feel like I’ve arrived. Absolutely not. I’m still Black and a woman- two underrepresented groups- particularly in theater. The playing field is still not leveled and I’m clear I have to work twice as hard.
I’ve had to build up strength and confidence. It is an ongoing process of gathering those superpowers. In many spaces, I’m sometimes the only woman (I was the only woman on the creative team for Jesus Christ Superstar Live), and the only black person in some rooms.
Recently two black girls at different events asked me the same exact question: How do you navigate spaces where you’re the only one.

It’s quite easy to feel intimated and shrink yourself. I know I have done that in the past. Now, I’ve found if I think about the black women before me in similar spaces, black women who are currently in similar spaces, and the next generation of black women coming after me, it makes me more confident. When it’s not just about you, it becomes a responsibility.

And even when I don’t feel like I have any superpowers, this happens…

and it refuels and encourages me to keep going. Someone is always watching.

“Turf” (Excerpt from “ink”) – Camille A. Brown & Dancers – Grace Farms (2018) from Camille A. Brown & Dancers on Vimeo

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Facebook

Advertisement

Twitter: @BroadwayBlack

Advertisement

Hot Topics