By Ben Joravsky
The most promising young playwright in Chicago may well be a 27-year-old actor who works the lunch shift at ESPN Zone. But if his good fortune continues he won't be waiting tables much longer. "I'm the quintessential actor paying his bills by being a waiter," says Javon Johnson with a laugh. "Things are starting to come together though."
One week ago the off-Loop company Johnson founded with his college friend Derrick Sanders, Congo Square Theatre Company, opened Cheryl L. West's Before It Hits Home. On Monday Hambone, the latest of Johnson's nine plays, opens at Victory Gardens Theater.
Reviewers have called Johnson's acting strong, but he may get even stronger reviews as a playwright--he's already won several fellowships and playwriting awards. His plays intercut comedic riffs and long bluesy monologues by working-class black men while building to tragic confrontations. If that sounds like the plays of August Wilson, there's a reason. "August is a friend and a mentor and just a huge influence on me," says Johnson. "But please, I don't even pretend to be in his company. He's the king. I'm just a duke."
Johnson has been in Chicago for only about a year, so he's written no plays set here--though he's working on one. Most of the plays, including Hambone, are set in and around his hometown of Anderson, a midsize industrial city in the northwest corner of South Carolina. They also take up an old theme--conflict between fathers and sons--and make music a major focus. "My parents always said I had an old soul," he says. "I was a rapper who loved hip-hop--that's my generation's music, and I don't try to hide it. But I also loved the blues and R & B--Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown. Especially James Brown."
As Johnson explains it, Brown is a pivotal character in Anderson lore. He was born in the area, though he grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and he goes back frequently. In 1988, when Johnson was 15, Brown made headlines when he was sent to prison after being convicted of assault and weapons charges. He was paroled in 1991, and a year later he won a Grammy lifetime-achievement award.
"It was big news when James Brown got arrested--it certainly had a big impact on me," says Johnson. "In general, this was a transition time for our community. We were dealing with issues of identity and labels--were we African-Americans or Afro-Amer-icans? Rap was emerging, which was one generation's assertion of its own identity. For James Brown to go to prison was huge. He's strong and defiant. The things that rappers are doing, James Brown did first."
In high school Johnson was more of a jock than an actor, playing football and soccer and running track. "No one in my family was an actor or a writer," he says. "My mother was an industrial worker; my father was a custodian for a hotel. Neither of them went to college."
During his junior year, Johnson says, a friend talked him into entering a drama contest with her. "We did a scene from A Raisin in the Sun and lost badly. I realized it wasn't my coactor. It was me. I didn't have it. I decided to commit to acting. We went back next year and did the same scene. This time we were first in state."
After graduating, Johnson went to South Carolina State University, where he majored in acting. He won roles in summer-stock productions and antiviolence plays geared to teenagers. He says his decision to write came almost out of nowhere one lonely night during the summer of 1996. He was in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was acting in a play. "We had evenings free, and I was staying in this apartment. I had a small black-and-white televison and some video games, but after a while it got boring. I started having these images coming back to my head. At first I tried to ignore them. But they kept coming back. After a while, I had to write them down. I didn't want to do it. I didn't think I had the intellect or the patience to write characters and scenes. I didn't like writing. But the images forced me to do something with it. I wrote my first script in that hotel room with a pencil."
Over the next few months he polished it into Papa's Blues, which won the Kennedy Center's Lorraine Hansberry Playwright Award and was eventually staged at the Kuntu Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh. "In 1997 I broke down and bought a desktop computer," he says. "I remember thinking, 'Why am I buying this?' I still didn't consider myself a writer. I was working on autopilot. I was just doing it--writing scripts. I'd have actors read it, then I'd rewrite it."
He was also trying to handle conflicting ambitions. "I wanted to act, and I wanted to write," he says, "but I wasn't sure I could do both. Finally I decided not to fight it. I would do both. One helps the other."
From 1997 to 1999 he moved around the country, settling for a time in Pittsburgh--August Wilson's hometown--where he got married and worked toward a master's degree in fine arts at the University of Pittsburgh and acted in local productions. He continued to write as his reputation grew. He won a Kennedy Center fellowship and an Arena Stage fellowship; Edward Albee selected him to be a reader and panelist at his annual playwriting conference in Alaska.
In late 1999, Johnson and Sanders decided to come to Chicago and start their own theater. "I have no family here," Johnson says. "Derrick and I looked at New York and Chicago and felt Chicago had an environment more sensitive to establishing a theater. New York City's just not as welcoming. If you get one bad review in a major paper you're through. There are no second chances."
He moved to Chicago last January. "Derrick was already here living in an apartment on Howard Street," he says. "I sacked out at his place, sleeping on an air mattress on the floor."
In the spring his wife, Paula, also moved here. They found an apartment in Logan Square, and he got a job as a waiter. Then he and Sanders started raising money and looking for a space where they could open the Congo Square. They settled into a storefront at 1156 W. Grand and opened last fall with a production of Wilson's The Piano Lesson.
By this time Johnson had finished the first draft of Hambone, a tragedy about black men living in a small town in South Carolina in 1988, just after James Brown was arrested. "I was having troubles with it, because no matter what I wrote it sounded like August--and I didn't want to sound too much like August Wilson," he says. "It's a strange dilemma, because he's my most prominent inspiration. Finally I raised the subject with August. I said, 'I keep rewriting sections, throwing out old sections, 'cause they sound too much like you. I'm really fighting it.' He said, 'Man, just write your play. Whatever your voice is, that's what it is.' In a sense he gave me permission."
The play takes place in a cafe where four men, two in their late teens and two in their late 40s, gather to make big plans, rehash old arguments and generally while away the time. The drama is set in motion when Bobbilee, a young man fresh out of prison, walks in and starts talking about how he did time with the Godfather of Soul. He says his big goal is to finish "Sleepwalking," a song he claims he and Brown are cowriting. "The Godfather told me black folks in prison ain't doing nothing but sleepwalking," Bobbilee tells Henry. "They walking around in their sleep like zombies. They get out, they go back, 'cause all they know to do is sleep. The brothers that ain't been to jail yet, on their way, 'cause half of them sleepwalking too."
"Sleep the only time we get a break," says Henry.
"But me and the Godfather gonna wake everybody up! Me and him gonna wake up the whole nation!"
For the past two years Johnson has been writing the play and regularly submitting drafts to contests. In the fall of 1999 Hambone won Columbia College's annual Theodore Ward playwriting award. In the spring Robert Redford invited him to work on the play at the annual Sundance playwriting workshop.
All the attention caught the eye of Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Victory Gardens. "I happened to pick up a newsletter from Sundance and noticed that they were doing a workshop of Hambone," he says. "I got a copy and read it and thought, 'In the right hands this could really fly.' Javon's strength is his ability to both entertain and investigate a serious subject, which is always a good balance--as opposed to doing one without the other. I have to admit James Brown was a big hook. I've been a big fan of James Brown for years. I remember when he got arrested. Somewhere in my closet I have a T-shirt or a cap that says Free James Brown. I like to think that James Brown and I are the hardest-working men in show business."
Zacek asked Ron O.J. Parson, a local director and actor who was last seen in the Steppenwolf production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to direct. By November, Parson and Zacek had assembled a cast featuring Anthony Fleming III, Francois Battiste, Freeman Coffey, A.C. Smith, and Tom Roland.
By early January Parson and the cast were well into rehearsals. Those early readings showed that Johnson had a good ear for the bickering and bantering of black men; his characters tease one another, making jokes about the cafe's cold coffee or the smell of fertilizer wafting in from the proprietor's garden. Yet there's menace beneath the laughter, a sense that someone's about to pull a knife or draw a gun.
"This play's rich for actors--you can get right into it," says Fleming, a 22-year-old actor who was born in Chicago. "Javon's a major talent. He's like smoking at the gas station--he's about to blow up."
Others in the show agree. "I think a lot of Javon's earlier plays will get read now," says Parson. "That's the way it goes. At first no one knows you. Then one play takes off and everything's changed. It's like with August Wilson--after Ma Rainey became a hit, people started looking back at the early stuff he had written and said, 'It's genius.'"
Right now, Johnson says he's almost too busy to think about success. "I get up early to take my wife to work. I go to the restaurant. I work my shift. I go to rehearsals. I do most of my writing late at night--until three or four in the morning. It's all happening right now. I have a lot riding on this. I stay positive. I remember the first time I met August Wilson--this was years ago when I was living in Pittsburgh. I don't know if he remembers it, but I always will. I said, 'How do you do, Mr. Wilson? I'm Javon Johnson. I just want you to know I'm the next best playwright coming out of Pittsburgh.' I didn't really believe it when I said it. I just sort of said it. But after that I figure I have to keep on writing because, hey, I can't lie to August Wilson."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.