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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."
It was around this time that Johnson came into contact with a form of theater, outside the regional and mainstream consciousness, that rattled his perception of the art form and sparked an interior monologue. "I think it was called Sugar Daddy," Johnson remembers. "I saw the piece; I was in school for theater at the time, and I can't say I enjoyed it the first time, because I really didn't understand it, and I was dealing more with an internal battle going on between my education and what I was viewing. They seemed to be in direct conflict with each other. It didn't make sense; I felt like I was being conned...Was I lied to as to what theater is? I think ultimately I realized that it wasn't a lie; it was just a particular style and a particular genre of theater."
The plot didn't even make sense to him. "It didn't really even have a plot," says Johnson. "It just went off on these things, and at the end of the day everybody kind of found God and that was the end of it. But the second time around I noticed how the audience responded to it...I enjoyed it just as much as they did once I took myself out of being a theater student."
Moved by the piece, Johnson was wrapped up in the atmosphere, the world of the production and the passion of the performers, but he noticed the lack of training. What would happen, he thought, if he mixed training with the ability to tap that shared emotion, the essence of theater, that catharsis?
Whatever She Wants aims squarely at a niche market, patrons of the urban theater circuit a cultural movement that has been in existence since the early years of the 20th century. Called Black Broadway, gospel theater and the chitlin' circuit, what's now known as urban theater flourished during segregation, when Sammy Davis Jr. was a performer on the circuit, but the form faded during the civil rights movement, allowing landmarks like Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun to reach a broader audience.
But in the '70s, black regional theaters were developing shows, sometimes musicals, like Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope and Mama I Want to Sing, which would hit the road and play touring houses all over the country, including stints on Broadway.
In Houston, George Hawkins's Ensemble Theatre, which started as a touring group and is now the oldest African-American theater in the Southwest, was helping to put shows on the revitalized circuit, too. By the early '80s, when the legendary August Wilson had emerged as a major playwriting force, Houston playwright Thomas Meloncon's Diary of a Black Man was being prepped by the Ensemble for an international tour.
In the mid '90s, writer-director-producer David E. Talbert, who earned his bachelor's degree in marketing, was touring popular "urban inspirational musicals and comedies" on the circuit. Talbert's pieces, keeping in the tradition of the urban genre, contain a strong religious message, surely reinforced by the presence of his great-grandfather, who was a Pentecostal preacher. Not that Talbert didn't experiment with the secular: According to a February 2007 article in The New York Times, "He once wrote a pure comedy without an inspirational message and was bluntly advised by audience members not to try it again."
Often critics avoided urban shows due to the religious message. Everett Evans, the Houston Chronicle's longtime theater reviewer, felt uncomfortable critiquing such material. "I don't go to the A.D. Players when they do a proselytizing play; I go when they do a mainstream, sort of secular, play," says Evans. The urban shows he encountered, he says, were playing to a particular audience and it wasn't up to him to say whether it was good or bad. "It's kind of beyond criticism; it doesn't even really need it," he says. He notes a similar situation with "gay theater" in which the gay angle is the sole appeal (e.g., Naked Boys Singing). In his opinion, when something is made for a specific niche audience, mainstream publications need not cover it.
Enter Tyler Perry, the juggernaut success story of the urban circuit, whose "Madea" plays have become box office gold in recent years (Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reuniontook in more than $110 million at the box office). Perry understood the urban format, and he kept the faith. He is also the most controversial figure in the history of urban theater, but that's probably more a symptom of his visibility than the content of his productions. [See "Black Box Office: Polarizing Perry."]
Johnson started I'm Ready Productions in 1997 with the show Heaven's Child, about the life and death of Emmett Till. He's recently brought shows to Atlanta, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and over the years I'm Ready has toured New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Johnson says I'm Ready has upcoming plans for Dallas and the West Coast.
Both Perry and I'm Ready have historically relied on word of mouth and the church to let people know about their shows. Traditional advertising has hardly been necessary. And these days, both receive heavy traffic on their Web sites. In the past, Perry has tracked online memberships to determine which city markets would be most profitable and suitable for road trips.
In the opinion of Eileen Morris, artistic director of the Ensemble (Morris and Johnson have worked together there), Johnson is taking urban theater to the next level and injecting a higher standard of quality into the genre, and he's looking to the future. Morris acknowledges that historically, urban circuit productions weren't up to snuff in the quality category and that theater training and a commitment to consistency, which Johnson and I'm Ready adhere to, are transforming the genre and building a bridge toward a broader acceptance of theater in the black community.
"Those earlier things we would be seeing sometimes, you would be going, ‘This acting is not good,' but all of that has turned around now," says Morris.
Johnson's philosophy toward his business is about balance. "Don't forsake art for entertainment, and don't forsake entertainment for art, but create a perfect merger and a blend between the two. My thought in getting into the urban market was to bridge the gap between the regional and the urban market, because [the urban market] was known as gospel plays. I knew I wouldn't come out to do a gospel play, but my initial thought, from performing at the Ensemble, was to make the Ensemble cross to the urban and the urban cross to the Ensemble to create something that had literary merit and entertainment value."
Morris sees a progression in Johnson's work toward a more comfortable portrayal of African-Americans that steers away from TV news-influenced story lines that deal with incarceration and abuse into a more relationship-oriented realm matters of the heart. She also notes the great sets, the music, the lights. Sure, there's a still a melodramatic tone, but it appeals to a generation reared on television and movies.
And "melodramatic" doesn't always mean "lowbrow." Morris remembers a conversation she had with Johnson when he toured a show to Pittsburgh, where Morris was working at the time. They were talking about the August Wilson play Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. Johnson said, "Come on, Eileen, in this piece, this man is married to this woman; he's an ex-baseball player; he has an affair with a woman; the woman dies; she has a baby; the wife winds up raising the baby. Come on, you can't get more melodramatic than that. And I went, ‘You're right, Je'Caryous.'"
Vivica A. Fox, who had little experience with the urban market, saw an opportunity in I'm Ready's accomplishments and got involved in Whatever She Wants when she heard there was an interest in her being the lead.
"I heard, ‘these guys want to work with you, they'll tailor-write a play for you; they really are big fans of yours.' I got a break in my schedule; I had a month of free time; I said, ‘show me what you can do,'" Fox recalls.
"Je'Caryous got me a script; we got into negotiations and talks, and I did it." She even signed on as producer and took a hands-on approach. "In rehearsals, I was very involved with the script, also getting other actors to sign on and just basically putting my word in there. I thought it would be great if we could get a good cast, even turn this into a movie, because I think right now the romantic comedy for African-Americans is suffering."
The goal, for Fox, was to represent a more sexy, cosmopolitan black woman, which, she joked, was "kind of like myself." Fox says her star status is attractive in the urban market, and not just to its built-in following. "I believe that's the appeal of myself as a leading lady. There were times that I looked out in the audience and saw all different nationalities, and that made me very proud. This is not your basic chitlin' circuit. We wanted to show people that black theater can be entertaining and fun and not one-note."
And Fox has nothing but praise when it comes to Johnson. "I'm really proud of Je'Caryous and Gary [Guidry, Johnson's uncle and business partner]. These are guys that had a dream that they are now living out, and the quality of each show gets better and better."
Whatever She Wants isn't going to win a Pulitzer, but it definitely has literary merit. In fact, the urban theater circuit has more in common with Shakespeare than practically anything else that walks and talks on a stage these days. Shakespeare also wrote for a niche market and "tested" his writing on audiences, keeping what worked and cutting what didn't.
"Shakespeare wrote for working-class people," Johnson says, "and I think we've lost that along the way in the regional theater, where art has become so selfish that it's become about ‘this is what I have to say and you should like this.'"
In the theater world, too often, regional, mainstream and even so-called experimental theaters ask their audiences to sit still, shut up and take it. "Art can sometimes be a selfish thing," says Johnson. "A lot of the playwrights I meet in the regional world it's a selfish thing; it's their vision, it's what they have to say to the world, and hopefully the world accepts it."
Theater groups sometimes forget to show audiences a good time. "The more that I've worked in the urban world and I've continued to watch regional productions, I realize that it's the entertainment value that's very different," says Johnson. "I think Broadway has it right; Broadway musicals are spectacles...I went to see Aida, and they had a fashion show in there that had absolutely nothing to do with nothing, but it tested well in the workshop, so they kept it, because it was highly entertaining. And they understand that people pay for entertainment."
Johnson is giving his audience a cinema/theater hybrid, complete with live music score, in which the audience is allowed to voice its approval or disapproval, always in respectable taste, of what is happening onstage.
In Whatever She Wants, Fox's character makes a direct statement that renders the conventions of theater null and void, and the audience has permission to break those conventions when she speaks the pre-intermission line, "I'm gonna close my eyes for five seconds, and if I see anybody still in here when I open them, you better call security, gather up all the ushers, turn on your cell phones and call the law, 'cause I'm gonna set it off up in this place!" The lights fade out to a musical break; the house lights rise, and the audience gladly takes a breather. If there're any interim-ditchers, in a space like the Verizon they're hardy noticed.
After the first scene of Whatever She Wants, in which Fox's character assumes the role, more or less, of motivational speaker, it's clear that we're in a kind of "secular church" territory, and the following scenes will play out like an urban parable: Vivian's elitism will get taken down a notch as she learns to take a chance on love again after being burned one too many times her previous boyfriend left her to go back to "his baby's mama," whom Vivian had no inkling of, until she showed up at Vivian's house with "some matches and gasoline."
If some scenes in the show feel inspirational, others feel as if the audience has been transported to La Bare. Male characters appear bare-chested, flaunting a sexual attitude and playing to the heavily estrogen-enhanced audience presence. When Vivian asks her suitor, Julian Heaven (played by former male model Boris Kodjoe), "What do you want?" and he replies, "To dive into your eyes, swim down to your soul and handcuff myself to your heart," the audience breathes a vocal, collective sigh. Vivian responds with a dead serious "Be careful. If you go too deep you might not be able to come up for air." As the live music builds under the scene, Julian strikes back with, "That's all right. As long as I hit the bottom." Boom. The drums and a big bass note underline the cheesy melodrama as women squeal their approval. And it's a very funny moment.
Later in the scene, Julian has demonstrated he is fluent in both French and German. Vivian asks how many languages he speaks. Julian responds that he tries not to limit himself, that the tongue is the most versatile muscle in the body, and it's amazing the things you can do if you know how to use it. He then flicks his tongue, Gene Simmons-style, at Vivian. Another boom. And several women actually get up out of their chairs. Fox feigns fainting and howls in another pop-infused outburst, "Run, Carol Anne! Come into the light!" The crowd roars. Later, at intermission, one man is overheard wishing he'd taken notes. "Man, those were some fly lines," he says to his male companion.
Of course, with sex comes religion. And Johnson wants to level the field. "You can't do a play like everybody was doing in the old days where everybody would get saved in the play," he says. "Bottom line is, there's some saved folks; there's some unsaved folks. You represent the saved folks and you represent the unsaved folks, too." Johnson sees his work as opposite to the urban pieces that came before, because his plays focus on more complicated contemporary issues rather than flat-out, punch-to-the-gut morality tales.
I'm Ready Productions has transformed the so-called "gospel play" into something that threatens to give Tyler Perry a run for his money and push into an even more comfortable mainstream market. And the company is banking several million dollars on the transition. Granted, Perry can sell out a theater house or, now, a movie house, with a single e-mail, but so can Johnson.
I'm Ready's out-of-the-box approach and level of quality show that the bar has been raised. But can the genre truly cross over?
Johnson believes it can. "I believe we're at the point where things are about to change for black, white and indifferent, and we're on the edge," he says.
"Can't wait to jump off the cliff."