Intimacy, Violence, and Solo Theater
Allen Johnson's Brute Instruments
There are six glasses on the table in front of us: two whiskies, two waters, two beers. We have been sitting in this bar for two hours, give or take, and Allen Johnson is where he usually is—in the middle of a story. "Hear that?" he interrupts himself, pointing to an almost imperceptibly whirring heater high above our heads. It's the starter, he explains, failing to ignite but trying over and over again. It's driving him crazy. "I'm just dying to get a 20-foot ladder," Johnson says. "To get up there, clean it out, and light the pilot light." He looks around. No ladder. Does he want to move to another table? "No, no, I'll be fine. Where was I?"
He was talking about his father.
Johnson tells a lot of stories about his father, a boiler mechanic who sexually assaulted him—for the first time—when he was 3 years old. These stories are the engine of his earnest but miraculously not-mawkish Another You, which began as a short monologue Johnson delivered in a Pioneer Square loft in 2003 and grew into a full-length solo show that, earlier this year, toured New York, Berlin, Leipzig, and Frankfurt.
Two adjectives follow Another You from city to city: honest and powerful. The reviews do not say that Another You is also seductive, that it succeeds where most earnest solo performance fails—you want to watch it. Johnson draws you in with an intensity that is overwhelming when he's sitting across a table, but makes perfect sense when he is in a theater, on a stage. It's almost as if he isn't performing. That confusion between the authentic and the performed, our inability to tell where Johnson-the-guy begins and the Johnson-the-performer ends, is what makes the show great. Mediocre earnest solo performers go to great lengths to seem honest and powerful. Johnson just is.
But he is reluctant to call himself an artist. "'Artist' feels like bohemian-with-a-capital-B," he says. "Like that guy in Animal House on the stairs, with the guitar that Belushi smashes to shreds. That word doesn't imply negative connotations when describing someone else, but I fear that if I put that label on myself, I ruin my integrity, I threaten my personhood." He was, briefly, a member of the Washington Ensemble Theatre but bowed out because, according to him, he isn't an actor.
Johnson draws other, less reluctant borders around his personhood: He knows his way around a car engine. He can, thanks to apprenticing with his father, fix heaters and boilers. He drives a big-ass, decades-old pickup truck. He has a New Jersey accent, muscular build, and stubble. He is always in jeans and work boots. He can drink and fight. He seems like a very tough guy.
"I am not a tough guy," he says, laughing a little at the suggestion. "The stories my father told—he was a tough guy. Had a 10th-grade education, grew up in Flatbush, a tough, tough street kid, a gang member, killed people. In my early 20s, I went to confront him about some of the things in Another You and I said that he was lucky to be alive, that I would have sawed him in half with a shotgun, and the fact that I was talking to him meant I had decided not to kill him. And he asked me: 'Have you ever really, really beat somebody?' And he told me a story about a gang fight he was in when he was 17 when he held a boy down and cut his eyes out of his head."
Johnson's father had been telling stories like that for as long as he can remember, ingraining storytelling in his son: "One of the weird, incestuous things between us is that he needed me to be his audience."
Johnson also talks with a need, like he has been looking, all his life, for an inexhaustible ear, a Platonic listener, and wonders if you just might be that person. It's perfect for a captive audience. He talks the same way on stage that he does across a barroom table—leaning into his stories, swooping through tangents, looking you in the eye, occasionally pausing to lick his lower lip and think out what he is going to say. Like: "Buffalo, New York, felt like a town that once was; it felt like American sadness." Or: "Only by the grace of God, only by some feather, some atomized twinkle of air, have I been able to let my blood-purple rage, my homicidal—literally homicidal—rage drain out through the bottoms of my feet." Or, on the intimacy of violence: "The heart is a brute instrument."
Another You is a loose affiliation of stories about male longing, fantasy, and violence that shifts from anecdote to anecdote the same way Johnson does in conversation. When asked why he thinks his father sexually abused him, he begins at a typically Johnsonian remove, three stories from the story that will answer the question—he begins with how well his grandfather could sing. He was a janitor and a Norwegian immigrant and sang in a men's choir and performed in Carnegie Hall. He was also morbidly obese and asked to quit the group because of it: "It kills me. That beautiful, beautiful tenor—if I had a few more drinks and meditated on that, it would bring me to a very, very sad place."
One night, when Johnson's father was 12, he was standing in front of the mirror, getting ready for a Boy Scout meeting. Johnson's grandfather, the giant tenor, collapsed in the bathroom. Johnson's father—just hitting puberty—ran to his father, pounding on his chest, performing whatever rudimentary CPR he was capable of, to no avail.
And the stories spin on from there: about how Johnson's grandmother took up with "some scumbag fuck" and about how Johnson's father "just bailed at 13 and hit the street" and about how he slept on couches and "was probably mistreated by the people he was trying to find shelter in" and about how one guy in the neighborhood went to Rikers Island for child rape and about how his father was probably one of his victims.
How can Johnson talk so publicly, so forthrightly, about all this? An answer, of sorts, comes toward the middle of Another You, when Johnson is talking about having sex "with a massage therapist on a freezing Saturday in Butler, New Jersey—her fist up my ass, her toes in my mouth." Johnson hesitates a moment, wonders what he is doing there, with her, and she quotes something from the Gnostic gospels: "If you make known what is within you, what you make known will save you. If you do not make known what is within you, what you do not make known will destroy you." Sometimes you get the sense, listening to Johnson, that he is trying to save himself.
It was his sophomore English teacher, Miss Bing, who convinced him to start keeping a journal. "It was the first time I wrote and got positive reinforcement," he says. "It was like opening a tap. I thought, 'I've got plenty of this.'"
That was the first big idea in Johnson's artistic development: the idea that he could be a writer.
After high school, Johnson went to Rutgers for four years but left with a 0.125 grade point average. He refused to take exams on the grounds that he "would not be evaluated." He briefly worked at a Wall Street bank, then moved back to New Jersey, drove a truck, and was hit by a car while crossing the street in front of a bar. He got a settlement and decided to take the money and go west, to Seattle, where there was talk of good bands and poets like Steven Jesse Bernstein. He drove across the country in 1991, staying high on beer and bits of blotter acid. Johnson quickly found a job working on boilers and furnaces in North Bend.
Time passed: He wrote poetry, read at the Red Sky series at the Globe cafe, milled paint at Daniel Smith, made friends and girlfriends who took him to theater at AHA! and Empty Space and Theater Schmeater, started reading Spalding Gray and Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. On the advice of a friend, he took theater classes at Freehold, where he met a voice teacher, Kimberly White, who, he says, "broke me open and changed my life—all that stuff about freeing the natural breath, it's not bullshit. It's real."
That was the second big idea in Johnson's artistic development: the idea that he could be a performer.
Here is how Allen Johnson went from reading poetry at open mics to touring a solo show in Europe: In 2003, after seeing a production of Sarah Kane's Crave, he went to Coastal Kitchen with its cast. He mentioned to Sean Ryan, the director, that he did some spoken word and Ryan insisted he perform at Solo Shorts, an evening of monologues performed in a Pioneer Square loft. (Ryan eventually became Johnson's director.) That seven-minute kernel grew into a 12-minute version for On the Boards' 12 Minutes Max to a 20-minute version for On the Boards' Northwest New Works to a full-length version for Portland's TBA Festival and On the Boards' 2005 season. The show impressed Mark Russell—the longtime artistic director of PS 122—who brought him to New York and helped set up the German tour.
Now Johnson is back in Seattle for a one-night performance of Another You, but without other definite plans. He's not even sure if he will make another show. "If I thought about what my next piece was going to be, I'm afraid that would compromise—" He looks down, licks his lower lip. "I don't want to force, manufacture, make art the way I'd make dinner. I don't want to harvest my humanity in the service of art."