Tag Archives: Playwrights

Artist Profile: Kevin Ray Johnson

Name: Kevin Ray Johnson

Hometown: Brooklyn Park, Minnesota

Residence: Brooklyn, New York

On Writing…

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.

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On Acting…

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.

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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:

 

Artist Profile: Luis Galindo

Name: Luis Galindoluis-galindo

Hometown: Alvin, TX

Residence: Houston, TX

What is your earliest memory of writing?

My earliest memory of writing would be writing a letter to Santa Claus in the first grade, I think, and asking him how the reindeer and Mrs. Claus were doing and then launching right into my wish list of Star Wars action figures and skateboards and footballs and the like.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer when the stage became too small. I am an actor by training and trade and the need to seek out new avenues of self-expression became overpowering. I can’t paint worth a damn and my musicianship has remained at novice level for decades, so I picked up a pen, instead.

I was a member of a popular Shakespeare company in Los Angeles and I did Shakespeare plays almost exclusively for years, and then one day, even the bard’s words weren’t enough for me anymore, I wanted to say what was on my mind, I needed to, so I started writing down ideas. The words came out with melodies, initially and I thought, “ Oh, I am supposed to write songs.” but then the melodies went away but the words kept coming, so I became a poet instead due to the thoughts learning to take the path of least resistance from mind to page.

Tell us about your writing process.

The writing process is tricky. I sit down with every intention of writing a poem and I will just start. Writing freely and trying not to think too much. Then the idea will present itself, maybe in a phrase or a pair of words and that will lead me to the shape of what it is that is trying to get out, or an idea that I am trying to make, make sense. Other times the poems won’t let me sleep at night and I have to get them out or I know they will be gone forever. Also, if I let them linger too long I will lose interest or they will transform into something less powerful to me. Sometimes I just have to stop for a while and let the ideas percolate. Other times I will hear a word or a phrase in a conversation or on the news that will send me down a poem rabbit hole and I just follow it, hoping to find something worthwhile.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on a new collection of poems. It will be released in the next few months.

A very good friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles is editing it for me. (He also edited the first collection I wrote) We are almost done now. It is called Grace and Fury and right now is at about 60 pieces and I have no doubt that number will decrease in the next few weeks.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffer from writer’s block a lot and it is no fun. I try to be patient and keep at it but sometimes the sense of defeat is so much that I just want to quit all together. Other times, I am able to write my way out.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

The writers and teachers that have influenced me the most have been Juan Felipe Herrera, Dylan Thomas, Bukowski (I know, I know, but I believe he is truly great). Right now Matthew Dickman is what I am reading. I am really into his work right now.

I’ve never taken a writing class before. I think I probably should.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

I would say the books that have had the biggest impact on me have been Book of Lives by Juan Felipe Herrera, I was blown away from the first page and immediately re-read the whole thing as soon as I finished it.

Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame by Charles Bukowski—This one was a game changer. I was young and confused and dark and sad and this book made so much sense to me that it has remained one of my all-time favorites. It is very special to me.

Two books that are not poetry, yet I cannot escape from are Sexus by Henry Miller and Blood Meridian (Or the Evening Redness in the West) by Cormac McCarthy

Miller shook me up in a way that made me question everything I believed and made me laugh and cry while doing it. Truly magnificent.

As for Blood Meridian, well, it is a book that is so terrifying, so horribly powerful that I have to put it down after just a few pages of reading. I re visit it from time to time, but, only in small doses. Downright Biblical. These two books have impacted me as greatly as any music, painting or poem anytime anywhere.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

My advice to aspiring writers is, try to stop sounding like your influences as soon as possible. You have a voice and it’s the one we need right now.

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Luis Galindo in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Stages Rep in 2015

Houston, We Have a Problem! Excluding Latina/o Stories in Tejas

In 2013, Smithsonian Magazine heralded Houston as the “Next Great American City,” citing its ethnic and cultural transformation over the last few decades as well as its reputation as a city where people can achieve the so-called “American Dream.” The Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University released a study that showed how Houston holds the nation’s most equitable distribution of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups: Asian, Latina/o, black, and white people. In Harris County, the demographics reveal that white people comprise only 33 percent of the population whereas Latina/os are 41 percent and African Americans 18.4 percent. In fact, of the population under 30-years-old, only 22 percent are white. The same year, an NPR feature celebrated this rich diversity. Still, in 2012 Pew Research Center ranks Houston as the most economically segregated city in the nation.

Houston is growing at an astronomical pace and there is no evidence that this is slowing down. Luckily, the arts are along for this ride. In 2015 and 2016 alone, the city has seen an unprecedented boom in the arts. The Alley Theatre just completed a $46.5 million makeover. The $25 million MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) opened with four theatres, an art gallery, rehearsal space, and office space. Main Street Theatre unveiled a $2 million overhaul of their space. AD Players Theater broke ground on a $49 million facility in the Galleria area that will house three theatres, a scenic shop, classrooms, and offices. Queensbury Theatre (formerly the Country Playhouse) opened its new $6.5 million theatre. And the Museum of Fine Arts Houston broke ground on its $450 million expansion (including a theatre).

Despite what the demographics and influx of cultural arts activity reveals, Latina/o representation on stage in Houston is few and far between. In the 2015–2016 theatre season, out of all the full productions at the city’s leading professional theatres such as the Alley, Stages Repertory Theatre, and Main Street Theatre, only two were by a Latina/o author: The Danube by Maríe Irene Fornés at Catastrophic Theatre and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages. To repeat, in a city with over 2.1 million people (over 5 million in the metro area) at least 40 percent of which are Latina/o, there were only two Latina/o plays produced during the entire professional theatre season. To me, these numbers are startling and reveal that Houston is wildly behind other places with similar demographic diversity across the country such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago where Latina/o stories are frequently seen on a variety of stages: big, small, Latina/o, LORT, university, high school—you name it.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound

“The Stories of Us” by Jelisa Jay Robinson

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Somewhere around the middle of Jelisa Jay Robinson’s The Stories of Us at Teatro Vivo in Austin, it hit me. I couldn’t recall seeing a play that so boldly tackled Blackness, Latinidad, and Afro-Latinidad. Sure, I’ve seen plays with Afro-Latin@ characters and lots of Latin@ plays, but nothing quite like The Stories of Us. Black. Brown. Neither. Both. The Stories of Us offers a rich and nuanced view of life in the contemporary United States. These are stories that need to be told all across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between. Produce this play!

The Stories of Us began as The Untold Stories while Robinson was still an undergrad Theatre and Latin American Studies major at the University of Texas at Austin. The play was later selected for Teatro Vivo’s Austin New Latino Play Festival in 2015 and received a full production this April-May under the direction of Florinda Bryant. The play is a series of vignettes that explores the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad and how this complex relationship continues to influence these (sometimes) overlapping communities today.

Besides “The Wobble” and knockout performances from Stacye Markey and Krysta Gonzales (who I finally got to meet!), what struck me the most about the play was Robinson’s writing. This girl has got it! She is doing important work to update the narrative on multicultural identity in 2016. As The Stories of Us demonstrates, we need to be having conversations about Afro-Latinidad. We need to understand the nuances of being Black in America, being “black enough,” having that “good hair,” being Latin@, speaking Spanish, having light skin, being racialized, passing, and using certain language (the play includes a poignant vignette about using the “n” word). Yet, why in 2016 are these conversations so few and far between in theatre, especially  in Latin@ theatre? Why isn’t there more Afro-Latinidad on stage?

Aside from the play itself, perhaps my favorite part of seeing The Stories of Us was witnessing a young artist find success by telling her stories, her truths. Robinson is living her dream and it’s beautiful to witness! I first met Robinson earlier this year and, through a combination of happenings, she has quickly become an important part of my writing community in Houston. My tribe—Jasminne Mendez, Icess Fernandez Rojas, Lupe Méndez, Josh Inocéncio, and, now thankfully, Jelisa Jay Robinson.

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Should Latina/o Roles Be Cast with Non-Latina/o Actors?

While issues of casting and diversity in theater have likely always been around, several recent controversies in 2015 have led to a new crop of discussions about casting white actors in ethnically-specific roles.

This year alone, issues arose  after the New York Gilbert & Sullivan  Players released promotional materials for The Mikado that used yellow face, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop was cast with a white actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr., and Llyod Suh’s Jesus in India was cast with two white actors and one mixed-raced actor playing roles specifically written for South Asian characters.

In light of these controversies, playwright Marisela Treviño Orta and I began brainstorming one night on Facebook about how Café Onda and the Latina/o Theatre Commons could intervene in this discussion. We asked the following questions to 5 Latina/o playwrights: Magdalena Gómez, Irma Mayorga, Marisela Treviño Orta, Elaine Romero, and Martín Zimmerman.

Should Latina/o roles be cast with non-Latina/o actors? How do you approach productions at colleges and universities when your play calls for characters of color but the acting pool at the university may or may not have the actors? How are you thinking about casting?

The responses that we received are rich in their content, diversity, and style. It’s worth checking out the essay for Magdalena Gómez’s poem, “Casting Call,” alone. Here are a few teasers:

“I’ve been fortunate enough to see university faculty lead efforts to diversify departments by programming work they needed to go outside their known actor pool to cast. These faculties just firmly believed they would find good actors of color to fill those roles if they worked hard enough. And 100 percent of the time they found those actors of color.” — Martín Zimmerman

“Can my work be done at a university level without causing harm? And by harm I mean perpetuating brown face?” —Marisela Treviño Orta

 

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Sleeping Weazel’s Badass Festival at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, featuring Robbie MCauley, Magdalena Gomez, and Kate Snodgrass. Photo by David Marshall. 

 

Please visit Café Onda for the entire essay and to add your voice to the discussion!