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A Closer Look: C.A. Johnson

Playwrights’ Corner
Susan Soon He Stanton and C.A. Johnson

C.A. Johnson is one of the 2016-17 Van Lier New Voices Fellows at The Lark. Originally from the suburbs of New Orleans, she has lived in Northampton, and calls New York her home. What I love about C.A.’s work is the clarity of her voice. Her plays dive deep into questions about homecoming and familial bonds. Her stories are both familiar and yet startling, otherworldly, and epic. As Lark Director of Artistic Programs Lloyd Suh puts it, C.A. is “working through urgent and vital questions about our cultural past, present, and future, in very personal and unexpected ways.” In the following interview, C.A. speaks with me about the upcoming Studio Retreat of her play, Waitin’ on the Moon, her writing, and her experience as a Van Lier. 

SUSAN STANTON: C.A., you once wrote that your work is concerned with the mechanisms of trauma and the effects of displacement on familial bonds. Can you tell me more about how location feeds your playworlds?

C.A. JOHNSON: Oh man. So for a very long time I’ve been obsessed with where I grew up (in and around New Orleans). I think I’m mostly working through figuring out who I was back then, who I am now, and how those two selves are different. To be candid, my adolescence was sort of ruptured by Hurricane Katrina, and after a series of forced changes and then some choices of my own, I moved away around fifteen to figure out a lot of things about myself. So, I suppose my interest in location and displacement starts there. I’m obsessed with the ways people take up space, whether it is verbal or physical, and how that shared way of behaving binds us together. Taking note of these patterns though, of love and affection and constancy, almost always leads me to the moment of separation. Because with it comes torment. Not sure if that’s my own trauma or just my artistic preoccupation, but I believe finding those connections and partings between characters in my plays is impossible without knowing the specifics of location. People choose people in small moments, but those moments are the culmination of so much history and place. So I think my work begins there. 

SS: How has New York influenced you as a writer? What do you look forward to during your Van Lier Fellowship?

CJ: I think New York has convinced me that writing is a job as much as it’s an artistic pursuit.  I love sitting down and fighting with the page, but seeing so much great theater and meeting so many wonderful artists, has convinced me that my work needs more than my nerdy writer passion. It also needs a hustle.  I like to think of my time at The Lark this year as a nice cushion for developing that hustle. I can really rework and develop some scripts, but I can also start envisioning what I hope I can accomplish in this big crazy town. 

SS: Your first public showing as a Van Lier Fellow is Studio Retreat reading of Waitin’ on the Moon. Tell me about this play.

CJ: Waitin’ on the Moon is a play about a family.  They are sort of a hodgepodge of Black folks—some related, others not—who all live together under one roof.  But then this man comes along, this patriarch returns, and they suddenly all have to deal with that in a very immediate way.  For me, that urgency is just the jumping off point though. I think the play is interested in how present danger sends us hurdling back into the past and into all the dangers that came before it.  The play is also about prisoner re-entry, queerness, magic, and the very slight difference between hating someone and missing them.

SS: Why this play? Why this play now? 

CJ: The "why this play now" question is always hard for me, because I don’t feel like an issue playwright. I love playwrights who tackle big ideas, or examine complex systems, or catalog history. In fact, they are some of my favorite writers. But I think I begin somewhere else. I saw a daughter. I saw her father. Then I also saw the army of folks who loved one or both of them, and how complex those relationships can be in certain communities. So I guess the “whys” are those dynamics: family, generations, love, and my thematic interest in how Black women find agency in a world that continually insists upon their erasure. The "now?” Honestly? Because it's on my heart. I suppose the challenge then--one I hope to tackle on our retreat--is why what's on my heart should matter to an audience. 

SS: How do ideas for plays first come to you? (i.e. is it an image, a world event, a sound, a person you know)?

CJ: I always find my characters first. I’ve tried starting with a situation, or an idea, or an intellectual interest, but it never works. I need to see a person in space who desperately needs something, and from there I can build obstacles around them. I can manufacture people who want them to have it, people who don’t, people who want them to have so much more, and on and on.  But I can’t begin without that moment of need.  I need to see a woman trying to prepare dinner for her family, who honestly just needs to be left alone for a while. Or a woman packing a bag, who really needs to not be questioned about why she’s leaving.  It gives the given scene some business, an emotional drive, and also an opening for conflict. I tend to build my play from there, not really knowing much else.

SS: I enjoyed reading Thirst. You set the play during a period of tentative peace after a debilitating world war. How is this world a mirror for reality?

CJ: Thirst began as me experimenting with genre. I’d been writing contemporary family dramas for a while, and decided I wanted to write a play set in a different time, possibly even in imagined time. So, I thought dystopian maybe? An armed conflict? And I followed those threads for a while, until I landed with some really intense scenes where characters debated race, a mysterious water conflict, and a past marriage. From there I basically decided to infuse those ideas with my immediate world.  The play centers on two women in a loving interracial relationship, but also circles the question of past love, of whether racial difference can be ignored, and, somewhat tangentially, the question of what the American South would look like if Black folks had all the power. It’s such a crazy mix of stuff, but I think Thirst is ultimately about where we may land 50 years from now or two weeks from now. I know we live in America, and that comes with this great sense of hope and permanence.  But as a Black queer woman living now, I often wonder about that.  Not because we necessarily deserve another world war or devastation or anything that Thirst imagines, but because we are stuck in this pattern of making entire groups of people feel like their humanity is inconsequential. And that’s dangerous. It honestly scares me, and if we’re not careful, it may lead this country to a surprisingly bleak future. 

SS: What do your plays sound like?

CJ: You know someone asked me this question pretty recently and I was both surprised and delighted by my answer. I think my plays sound like pretty arguments. No matter how I attack them, my scenes wind up being a group of people debating some truth, and because of my interest in dialect and cadence, that debate has a musical quality.  I can honestly say that whenever I hear a group of actors really nail it, I remember why I started writing in the first place. And I’m renewed.