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It's Sunday matinee time in Downtown's Theater District, and the largest crowd of theatergoers isn't lining up at the Alley, the Hobby Center or the Wortham. Instead, a throng is packing the Verizon Wireless Theater to see a show written by a local playwright who is virtually unknown to the vast majority of theater aficionados.
If that sounds odd, consider the familiar elements: Not unlike the current crop of offerings on Broadway, the show boasts major film and television stars, and likewise, the patrons in attendance are well-dressed and mostly female.
It's the overwhelmingly African-American presence here that sets this theater event apart from, well, probably any other mainstream event of its kind.
The playwright, Je'Caryous Johnson, a handsome 29-year-old in a well-cut suit, works the orchestra section of the room, shaking hands with patrons and welcoming them. Verizon Theater crew settle into their positions for show time. Audience members snack on nachos and sip $7 draft beers and frozen cocktails. A smooth R&B groove plays over the sound system. One almost expects a voice to boom out, This is the jam of the year, like at Prince's 1998 New Year's concert at the Compaq Center. This doesn't feel like a theater event.
The play, Whatever She Wants, is a romantic comedy starring Kill Bill's kick-butt Vivica A. Fox as Vivian Wolf (think the part was written for her?), a nightclub entrepreneur who promises women a no-nonsense club-going environment free of leering, lying men whose only goal is the horizontal dance. Richard Roundtree, the living legend and current TV star (Desperate Housewives, Heroes) known to most for playing the original John Shaft, plays her father.
At the start of the show, Fox (wearing a wireless microphone) addresses the audience directly: "Look at all my beautiful black sisters in here...welcome to club Whatever She Wants, the answer to all your dating prayers. Ladies, let's be honest we love ourselves some black men, don't we? I'm talking about a fine brother with a face like Denzel, a body like L.L. and feet like Shaquille O'Neal," which Fox demonstrates with a "this big" gesture.
Club Whatever She Wants is equipped with the "Good Man Detector," a thoroughly unbelievable device that "screens" men at the club's front door. In order to get in, men must pass muster. One man approaches the club, and the detector reads, "Sensitive. Six figures. Two homes...Qualified," while another is rejected with "Lives with his mama. Bad credit. Dog...Denied."
It's with this plot device that playwright Johnson establishes the rules for what will come: a metaphor told in a mixture of urban pop culture, melodrama and farce, about independence, trust and real love. And the audience will appreciate the message, since it was tailor-made for them, just like similar touring productions over the years (albeit much more obscure then than today).
But it's that same market-savvy packaging that has spawned controversy among critics and other black artists, some of whom accuse productions in the vein of Whatever She Wants of mediocre pandering and the perpetuation of black stereotypes, although that criticism may be misguided and, in some sense, just plain jealousy. Johnson's touring theater company, I'm Ready Productions, has made $90 million in ten years of business.
Playwright Je'Caryous Johnson was born May 26, 1977, and was raised by his mother and grandmother in the Studewood neighborhood of northwest Houston, just east of Highland Heights and the historic Acres Homes, which during WWI was considered the South's largest unincorporated black community.
"My mom had me at 15," he says. "Life as a kid in the hood; I can say that we were poor, but as a kid you kind of don't know it. You make do with what you have. I couldn't have a moped, but I'd certainly take a bike and put a can on the back of it, so it sounded like a moped." Johnson's father, though absent in the house, was accessible and a friend to Johnson when he needed him.
After his talent for performing surfaced in elementary school (at James D. Burrus Magnet School for Fine Arts), it lay dormant through middle school. But Johnson's interest in acting was rekindled when he was offered a part in a high school play. He went on to become a national champion in playwriting in the National History Day Contest.
Enrolled at the University of Houston, Johnson received what he describes as the best theater education anyone can get. "Dr. [Sidney] Berger, who ran the department, had so many friends and colleagues that came in. You had Stuart Ostrow, Edward Albee, José Quintero, Sir Peter Hall, all of these theater legends and greats, actually teaching there. That was greater than going to Juilliard, Yale, anywhere. You don't get that in those programs."
Dr. Berger remembers Johnson as an effervescent and very brave actor. "I directed him in a play in 1998 called Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, playing one of the leads, and he was very daring, and the choices he made were not only interesting, but right. He was also extremely easy to work with, so he was in a sense a director's ideal actor."