Antique Stories, New Voices

By

An interview with BlackC.A.S.T. director.

Darius Johnson ’18 just wrapped up their fourth show here at Harvard—the second they’ve directed. As president of the Harvard Black Community and Student Theatre Group (BlackC.A.S.T.) and director of Songs of the Harlem River, they’ve played a huge role in shaping theatre in the black community on campus.

Megan Sims (MS): What was your vision when choosing to put on this particular show?

Darius Johnson (DJ): When I watched the first production of the show that had been done in New York a few years ago, one thing that I noticed was the very apparent lack of queer narrative in the show, even though it was five shows written during the Harlem Renaissance about the Harlem Renaissance. Each scene was a small scene written by a different playwright. And even though the original playwrights didn’t initially put those narratives in the script, all the scripts are public domain so you can edit them and adapt them, which is what we ended up doing. The original production didn’t take that opportunity to weave in those other narratives that were, I believe, very salient parts of the larger Harlem Renaissance arts movement and lifestyle, particularly in the black community. And so my biggest vision was to really incorporate those queer narratives into the show, not in a way that problematized the narratives but to show that these were people who were living during this time and that these stories contributed to all the larger social issues that were being raised during the Harlem Renaissance by artists and by activists.

MS: Can you talk a little more about the adaptation process? What were your goals and intentions, and what themes were you trying to draw out?

DJ: I asked Madison Johnson, who is secretary of BlackC.A.S.T. a few weeks before school started, “Hey, some of these plays are kind of weird, do you want to help me change them?” and they were like “Sure!” and then we worked together. We pretty much went through each scene and decided, “Does it need to be changed, why does it need to be changed, what changes need to be made?” There were a couple of the scenes where the writing was very, very contemporaneous for the 20s and 30s, so a lot of it was difficult to understand for us as adapters in order to adapt correctly, and I suspected it would be difficult for me as a director to direct these shows and then also for audience members to understand. For example, the last scene, “The Starter,” Madison and I decided that the plot was great, that the larger context of talking about socioeconomic status and marriage and gender roles were all important themes, but those themes weren’t clear in the script. So we just agreed on a general plot and just rewrote the whole scene. Basically, a good 90% of the words in that scene were written by Madison or myself. And in the first scene, “Girl from Back Home,” we just thought it was a little boring, “Oh this woman has these respectability politics about wanting to be a married black woman and that’s why she leaves this man.” But we thought that’s not really that salient of a theme nowadays, so we decided to queer it up and make it a story about a woman who’s terrified to explore her sexuality with this other woman from back home who she loves. And a lot of subtext got introduced accidentally or intentionally. Every scene was a whole different process that we sort of went through piece by piece.

MS: How has it been being a part of BlackC.A.S.T. since the rousing success of Black Magic last semester?

DJ: It’s been really tiring but really fulfilling. Because when I got on campus, BlackC.A.S.T. wasn’t that big of a thing. We had a small comeback with Negative in the Adams Pool Theatre directed by Jumai Yusuf, and A Raisin in the Sun directed by me in the Loeb Ex. And then we had Black Magic, and we just exploded. When Raisin happened we sort of got back on the map, but then we got the mainstage space, and I think Raisin really helped us get the mainstage space because Raisin was supposed to be a staged reading that two BlackC.A.S.T. members and Danny Rodriguez turned into a full production with limited resources and limited time. And it ended up being a great production. So once Black Magic happened, everyone was contacting BlackC.A.S.T. wanting to do a whole bunch of things and contacting me and asking what we were going to do next and having ideas on what we should do, and it was a lot. Because Black Magic, though it was a success, was really a struggle behind the scenes. There were a lot of us who didn’t have that much theatre experience trying to put on this huge show that we had written. And so in that respect, although the end product ended up being great, it was a lot of stress for everybody involved. Coming out of Black Magic, I decided to do a small scale production in the Loeb Ex before taking on anything huge again just to give BlackC.A.S.T. a moment to recharge and do some recruiting for board members. From Black Magic we were able to really flesh out a board. I just didn’t want us to have a lull from having a great show like Black Magic. I wanted us to have another great show that was smaller scale. I think what people really loved about Black Magic was how intersectional it was. There were black people and queer people and non-binary people and it was all over the place, and people really liked that. So that was sort of the thing I tried to repeat in Songs of the Harlem River. People on campus want to see these stories. We learned a lot from Black Magic.

MS: How do you feel Songs of the Harlem River fits into the larger conversations about race and blackness going on in this country?

DJ: I’m really into old shows. I’m really into antiques, like physical antiques and also antique theatre—so that’s what really attracted to me to Songs of the Harlem River. What I always think is really great is how different the stories can be and still translate into really salient themes. So we talk about “Deacon’s Awakening,” the second scene, which is about women’s right to vote. Nowadays, access to voting along racial and socioeconomic lines is a very salient theme, like laws that are meant to be de facto barriers to women, people of lower socioeconomic status, to people of color. When you look at the show, it’s like, all these things happened in the 20s and 30s, but you can draw very easy parallels or even progressions of these problems that are still unresolved now. Even if you look at the Black Lives Matter Movement and how ridiculous it is that we still have to have movements about the lives of people of color mattering. And if you look at our third scene, “Blue Eyed Black Boy,” it’s about a lynching where this family is terrified of their son being lynched for something as stupid as brushing past a white woman. And nowadays we think about children being killed for carrying toy guns. The scene seems ridiculous when you watch it, but we can think about things that happen today where people are being shot in the street for similar reasons. I think that’s a really unique thing about the show being five different plays, that it hits you really quick and fast with these things that relate to contemporary things.

MS: Anything else you want to add?

DJ: I think that one positive thing I’ve noticed, especially doing this show and coming out of Black Magic is how HRDC is slowly trying to better itself. There are still a lot of problems in the theatre community as far as Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. I think that people are trying to be more cognizant of that, but we’re still at a place where problematic shows are happening and problematic things are happening in the theatre community. I think that BlackC.A,S.T. being in the spotlight now and being able to bring these people into theatre experiences is helping the larger theatre community come to terms with the larger problems that still exist.

Megan Sims ([email protected]) hopes to continue to see a diversity of stories told through theatre at Harvard.