Artist Profile: Kevin Ray Johnson
Name: Kevin Ray Johnson
Hometown: Brooklyn Park, Minnesota
Residence: Brooklyn, New York
What is your earliest memory of writing?
Okay I have to admit something from the start. I was never that great of a student but I always did well on papers and in English class. So I would say my earliest memories go as far back as the 4th or 5th grade. I loved when we would get creative type writing assignments.
How did you become a writer?
I became a writer when I was 19 and I wanted to write something that chronicled my life while living with diabetes and I started writing it while in school. That play was called Life Inside an Open Kaije (Kaije is pronounced like Cage) and something about that made me realize that this wasn’t a one shot deal this is something I want to do forever.
Tell us about your writing process.
I generally want to develop the arc of the story. The beginning, middle and end and when that is done it’s all about fleshing out the characters as much as possible. Making them real and relatable and someone you want to invest in. Revisions and being objective are essential for a writer you should never ever feel your job is done and you should never be above taking criticism.
Tell us about The Unpredictable Times and Reginald: From Baltimore to Billionaire.
The Unpredictable Times is a piece I have been working on for well over ten years. It originally started off as a 10 minute that I wrote called “The Next Day” my last year in college. I grew up in Minnesota and it’s a coming of age drama based on five friends from Champlin, Minnesota. They come back home to Champlin for the summer after graduating college to be met by unresolved issues from the past that will challenge their childhood friendships now as adults. To me, I wrote it because I wanted a coming of age piece that anyone no matter what generation (millennial, gen x etc) can relate to when it comes to letting go, forgiving and growing up. I wanted the situation to be relatable while at the same time being something I know so well which is Minnesota. When you grow up in MN it’s like no other place and you truly no matter where you go bring a little bit of the Midwest with you.
Reginald: from Baltimore to Billionaire is a piece based on the first African American Billionaire Reginald F. Lewis. I want to start by saying that I wake up every day feeling like the luckiest man alive that I am allowed to write this story. I was working with a wonderful NYC actress named Lora Nicolas. We were at her place one day working on lines and she brought up through a conversation that her uncle is Reginald F. Lewis. My jaw dropped. She responded with “Oh wow you know who he is?” ha yea I did. She knew that I was a writer and that’s when the original idea came to write a play about Reginald.
It follows the life of Reginald Lewis from the time he is 13 up until the time he signs the Beatrice Deal which made him become the first black billionaire. You see him go through college and get accepted into Harvard, meet his wonderful lovely wife Loida Nicolas (who I had the pleasure of having dinner with not too long ago and is truly such an amazing and beautiful human being) to his law firm, creating TLC (The Lewis Company) and the Beatrice Deal.
When I spoke to Loida I remember saying to her that this isn’t a piece that I want to be told this is a piece that NEEDS to be told. We live in a time where “reality stars” are claiming to want to Make America Great Again. I feel there is truly something inspiring about seeing a man that looks like Reginald live in a time like the 50s and 60s and him having the mindset that this isn’t gonna stop me. I’m gonna keep going no matter what. I have lost many nights of sleep because of this play (not a bad thing at all) because I just sit up and read it and think that this is something that could inspire a lot of people while educating them on who the first really was.
The first reading took place August of 2016 and it featured Isaiah Johnson (Who played mister in the revival of The Color Purple and who will be starring in the upcoming tour of Hamilton) as Reginald F. Lewis with Lora Nicolas playing her Aunt Loida Nicolas-Lewis. There was such an amazing visual that I tell Lora about all the time. She was sitting there in the reading and her Aunt was sitting right in front of her with her eyes closed just listening to the play. It was just such an amazing visual that I will remember for the rest of my writing career.
What else are you working on now?
I have several projects. One is a play cycle called “Before it Got Unpredictable: Short Plays by Kevin Ray Johnson” which features three short plays I wrote. It was performed last June and was headlined by Remy Zaken (Original Thea in Spring Awakening on Broadway) and featured an amazing cast.
I also am in the beginning process of working on a One-Act play called Obsolete Classified which is one of the heavier pieces I have worked on ever. I am someone who is very passionate about the discussion of mental health and that no one should be afraid to admit that they are not okay. Obsolete Classified follows someone who is wrongfully put in suicide watch at a hospital for 4 days and how those 4 days didn’t help them but only made it worse.
Also what I talked about earlier, The Next Day, will be performed at The New York Theater Festival and will featured an amazing cast of two up and coming actors in Michael Coale Grey and Megan Albracht. Show dates are March 7th, 11th and 12th at the Hudson Guild Theatre.
What books/plays have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?
The Marriage of Bette and Boo and This is our Youth as well as Othello and I know its cliché but I learned so much as a writer from Romeo and Juliet.
Tell us about your process of preparing for a new role.
I read the script and then I ask myself how I want to take on this role from talking, expressions, mannerisms, to even the way I stand, are they likeable or unlikeable, how do I relate, can I relate and so on. I am not someone who tries to completely go against the grain from what the writer was wanting to get across but I still want to make it my own. When it comes to musicals and if it’s a well known show I try not to listen to the soundtrack. I feel as actors the one thing we should always do is put 100 percent trust in our directors so if we are able to do that then the performance will show.
What is your dream role? What do you feel you would bring to it?
Oh wow. This is a tough one. Musicals I am gonna say Jake in Sideshow. Plays would definitely be Chad Deity in the Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and for Shakespeare I would say Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Othello in Othello.
For all four roles, I feel I would bring being able to relate and understand them. All four characters (even Tybalt) you can feel sympathy for and even if you don’t agree with how they go about things there truly is a reason why they are and in their own mind they believe what they are doing is right. I find that fascinating as an artist.
On a life in the theatre…
What have been the defining moments in your career as a theatre artist?
Making my Off Broadway debut in The Love Note in 2014, having the honor of playing the role of Dr. Madden/ Dr. Fine in Next to Normal on 4 different occasions, becoming a board member at Rise Above Performing Arts in Florida led by Jacob Ruscoe because being around kids who love theatre is always a gift in itself and most recently performing in Guys and Dolls at The Asolo Repertory Theatre because the entire time I truly didn’t feel worthy. Josh Rhodes is truly one of the greatest directors I truly feel in the entire world and working with him truly was a defining moment in my career.
Who has had the biggest impact on your journey so far? Do you have any mentors or heroes in the theatre?
My mother for her support and for believing in me.
Molly Donnelly, my voice teacher in college who truly was the only one I felt believed in me when even I didn’t believe in me.
Isaiah Johnson and Jessica Frances Dukes for being the epitome of what a black artist should be and two people I truly look up to on and off the stage.
A wonderful artist named Michael Kevin Callahan who was my dance captain for Guys and Dolls at Asolo Repertory Theatre. He truly deserves all the amazing things coming his way. One of the most talented dancers I have ever seen in my entire life and with all that I can truly say one of the kindest beautiful spirits I have ever encountered.
My fiancé Rachael for truly being my rock and making me see things from a different point of view. I truly don’t know what I would do without her.
What advice do you have for aspiring theatre artists?
Believe in yourself. If you don’t have confidence in yourself you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you started. We all get that little negative voice in our head. The sooner you have the strength to block it out the sooner you will become the best performer you can be. Stay in your lane and if things come faster to people around you than it does to you it doesn’t mean that you aren’t talented so don’t give up. Everyone I feel has the ability and capability to make it in this amazing business. The reason why people don’t is because they are not able to stick it out through the tough times especially when it comes to “not being cast” or “being overlooked.” Stick it out. You can do it.
Is there anything else we should know about you?
I am the biggest wrestling fan and probably Nirvana’s number one fan but lol that’s a story for another day.
***For more on Kevin Ray Johnson, see:
- Kevin Ray Johnson’s Personal Website
- Read Kevin Ray Johnson’s Bio
- Kevin Ray Johnson Interview with Someday Productions and Talking Pillow
- Follow Kevin Ray Johnson on Twitter