Artist to Watch: Michelle Johnson

photo by Mark Berndt

A Kansas City playwright who came late to the game is getting national exposure.

How do you become a hot new playwright?  If you’re Michelle T. Johnson,  you start as a reporter, covering beats for the Philadelphia Daily News, Louisville Courier-Journal and the Austin American-Statesman. Then you go to law school, pass the bar, and work as an employment attorney. Then you give up law to become a public speaker and diversity consultant. Then you finally take a stab at drama. Suddenly you’re an overnight sensation – at age 50.

Johnson had written fiction for 30 years, but never tried her hand at theater until 2011. “There was a competition for 10-minute plays written by black women,” she said. “I took an old short story of mine and turned it into a play. It was rejected,” she laughed.

Since that inauspicious start, Johnson has made it look easy. Her plays have been performed all over KC, as well as Texas, Connecticut, Kentucky, New York City and Philadelphia, where she serves as resident playwright for a company called BrainSpunk. She makes it sound easy, too.

“The first thing I do when I’m writing a play is think about what points I want to make that people will leave the theater with. The second thing is to think of a story to make those points.”

Usually those points are about new ways of seeing, particularly in regards to race. She writes about characters facing big decisions, and tries to communicate for a mass audience the unique issues faced by African Americans.

“I want to disrupt the dominant narrative,” Johnson said. “People are used to thinking about things in a certain way. I want to encourage new ways of looking at the world.”

She mentions the racial tensions in Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri.

“Everyone is so concerned with the narrative of white cops shooting black kids,” she said. “The real issue is how we think about black boys in the first place – what gets us to a place where it’s so easy for these shootings to take place.”

Her age and the wisdom it brings, she said, helps Johnson confront such weighty subjects. “Because I started writing plays at 46,” she said, “I’m telling far more interesting stories than if I was writing at 26.”

Her latest, Echoes of Octavia, is interesting enough to take the New York City stage. Two stages, in fact. Come June, the show will have a staged reading as part of the 2015 TRU Play Reading Series, followed by a full production next year at another New York company, Rhymes Over Beats. Not bad for a new playwright, no matter what her age.

Hampton Stevens

Hampton Stevens is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, The Kansas City Star, and many other regional and national publications.

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