As an expression of performance poetry, spoken word forms a singular link between poetry and theatre. So it is fitting that spoken-word artist Javon Johnson’s one-man show “Still.” is helping launch Pasadena Playhouse’s PlayhouseLive, a streaming platform.
The platform is a hybridized format of musical revues, new works, unproduced works in development, behind-the-scenes explorations, puppetry, celebrity interviews and educational offerings that was formed in response to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Commissioned by Pasadena Playhouse, “Still.” addresses “the complexities of the Black experience” and begins streaming Wednesday, September 30.
Johnson, a Los Angeles native who is an assistant professor and director of African American and African diaspora studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, calls Da Poetry Lounge at Greenway Court Theatre in Fairfax High School his poetry home “when the world is not in isolation.” “Still.” is his “first professionally produced” theatrical production and was created in response to George Floyd’s murder and the transformation of the national conversation and worldview. But there’s been no shortage of inspiration over recent decades; many pieces in “Still.” are “older poems that fit this moment,” according to Johnson. Which speaks directly to the show’s title.
“While the discussion of racism, the experience of seeing it on TV is new for a lot of people, for many Black people this is everyday life,” Johnson said during a phone interview last Friday. “There’s a poem in there that has gone viral already called ‘Cuz He’s Black.’ It takes its title from a Ntozake Shange poem about the Atlanta murders in the 1980s called ‘Abt Atlanta.’ I was watching an interview of Shange’s, and she said, ‘I cried the entire time writing that poem, because I had to imagine what would it be like being a Black mother at a time like that.’ And I thought to myself while writing this poem, ‘Isn’t that what it’s like to be a Black mother, period? At a time like that, at a time like this, in a space like that and also in a space like this?’ So I took a line from that — ‘Cuz he’s Black & poor/ he’s disappeared/ the name waz lost’ — and I wrote this poem about my nephew. The poem didn’t get written until 2012 and it didn’t go viral until 2013, but what becomes really important is that the experience that I write about happened 13 years ago. So the poem is always relevant. Every time a police officer ends up shooting someone Black, this poem becomes relevant again. I hate that this poem stays relevant.”
The hard-hitting “Cuz He’s Black” recounts an enlightening car ride when Johnson realized his then 5-year-old nephew had “learned to hide/ from the cops before/ he knew how to read.” He admonishes the boy to not be afraid and to “know your laws,” even as he sorrowfully namechecks historic victims of police brutality from Emmett Till to Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin.
Such defining experiences for his family and community are at the center of most of Johnson’s poems, even when he doesn’t specifically reference them. Dig beneath the imagery and heart-gripping moments, and what he continually asks — what “Still.” asks, from its title to its collective force as a whole performance piece — is, what does it mean to work toward a better world, and how might this act/decision/poem/protest help us get there?
“Artists have a particularly important role in that,” he said. “I always tell people there’s a reason why Plato says kill off the poets in the perfect republic. Poets have the ability to get people to believe in dreams outside of Plato’s philosopher dreams. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s book ‘Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams’ argues that the state (government) has dreams for the nation [and] uses gunpoints to enforce their dreams, while artists use penpoints to imagine those dreams. And artists’ dreams are expansive. … Imagination is to think of that which does not exist. It’s the charge of the artist to put imagination into practice, to establish that which does not exist. What haven’t we done, what can we do, what else can be? That is important in thinking about what it means to work toward a better world. …
“Take voting rights. There was a time that it was absurd for both you and I to vote. Someone had to imagine me as property, right? And someone like you, who had also been considered property in a different kind of relationship. Someone had to imagine that property could have stakes in the political apparatus. That takes sheer imagination. The creativity to be political in spite of no access to the democratic process is amazing. So the history of Black liberation for me is a history of creativity and of imagination. The history of feminist liberation is a history of creativity and imagination.”
Johnson speaks in a rush of ebullient energy even when tunneling into weighty topics. He laughs often and tells amusing family anecdotes (“I’m also an incredibly silly person”) that, when shared onstage between poems, form conversational connections with audiences. That got lost during the filming of “Still.” at the Pasadena Playhouse when he performed alone onstage to lights, cameras, and a bare-boned crew.
But he likens the filming experience to the intimacy experienced during one-on-one conversations when people “share the wildernesses” of their individual selves. When we lose loved ones, he said, “what we’re hurting for is that shared space that’s no longer quite the same. There’s this intimacy where I’m hoping the audience can get lost with it. I think that’s what gained.”
“Still.” begins streaming via Playhouse Live on September 30. Visit pasadenaplayhouse.org/playhouselive-streaming-september-30th for details.”