Sunday, June 12, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 852: Michelle Tyrene Johnson

Michelle Tyrene Johnson

Hometown: Kansas City, Kansas

Current Town: Kansas City, Missouri

Q: Tell me about your upcoming show in San Francisco.

A: My play "Justice in the Embers" will be at Flight Deck Theater in Oakland, California this July after a successful three-week run in Kansas City, Missouri in February. It's a commission I won from StoryWorks, which is out of the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, where they have a local playwright take a piece of local journalism and turn it into a one-hour play. My piece was about Bryan Sheppard, a man who is 20 years into his federal, life-without-parole sentence for his conviction of causing an explosion in Kansas City that killed six firefighters about 30 years ago. There have always been serious doubts about the guilt of Sheppard and the other four people and a recent Supreme Court ruling allows Sheppard a hearing where he could get a shot at being released due to his age at the time of the crime for which he was convicted.

Q: What else are you working on now?

A: I have been working on a play called "The Green Book Wine Club Train Trip" which is a play with all black women characters, some of whom travel back in time to the 1940s. "The Negro Motorist Green Book" was a published guide used before the Jim Crow era to advise traveling blacks which places were safe and what businesses needed to be avoided throughout the country. Time travel is merely a device to illustrate that while advancements have happened in America, black women still address many of the same issues.

Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A: My dirty little open secret from childhood is that my great-grandmother got me hooked on soap operas when I was four years old. I'm an only child and the world of the "stories" was as real and captivating to me as playing outside with neighborhood kids ever could be. Between that and being a lover of mystery novels from a young age also, well before I was teen, I was obsessed with intrigue, hidden motivations, secrets unveiled in unusual circumstances and human emotional puzzles. In retrospect, it explains why I had careers as a journalist and as a lawyer - I liked digging around other people's stories. It also explains my current careers of diversity and inclusion work and writing - I love exploring human motivations and helping to elevate them.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I love culture - my own as a black person, as a woman, as a person of my generation, as a Midwesterner, etc. And I love seeing people write engaging theater about another culture - hopefully their own. I think the truth in fictional stories about real experiences offers the only chance people have of learning about our common humanity. We storytellers, in my opinion, have an obligation to write and celebrate individual specificity and not dilute it. Full-strength, unapologetic honesty is what makes our stories universal and transformative. Everything doesn't have to be heavy - my darkest plays always have humor - but I love plays that leave audiences thinking.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: I'm practically staring out myself but the advice I give to myself is : write, submit, rewrite, self-produce, network, thicken the skin, put on shuffle and repeat.

Q: Plugs, please:

A: A small theater company out of NYC called Rhymes Over Beats will be doing a production of my play "Echoes of Octavia" in 2017. I'd also like to shamelessly plug my availability for more commissions and play development opportunities.
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