Timothy Johnson

Theater Director
headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy Timothy Johnson.

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.

On February 19 She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind, an evening of three short plays by influential Harlem Renaissance writer Eulalie Spence opened at Metropolitan Playhouse, in New York City. A life-long high school teacher as well as a distinguished playwright, Eulalie Spence’s work in theater explores the lives of everyday people in the language everyday people speak. She described the plays she wrote as “folk plays” celebrating the humanity of her characters with all their virtues and flaws. Framed by a cappella musical settings, She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind gives audiences a window into daily life in Harlem in the 1920s through the eyes of this pioneering writer. Timothy Johnson is the director of She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind and he’s joining me now to talk about these one-act plays and the extraordinary Eulalie Spence.

Timothy Johnson: Oh, my gosh. Eulalie Spence. Jo, I admit that I have become quite enamored with Eulalie Spence. She was born in the West Indies in the Island of Nevis and she's one of seven girls. One of seven girls. She did spend a significant amount of her formative years growing up there and then her father relocated their family to Harlem, uptown in Harlem is where he relocated them. And she thrived. She went to Wadleigh High School. And then from there, she went to New York University and received a B.A. And then she did some teacher training at this school for teachers and eventually she got a Master's of Arts from the Teachers College at Columbia University. And then eventually, from what I was able to read in the archives, somehow because she was clearly a lover of language, she began to write plays.

Jo Reed: And she brought that love of language into the classroom. Obviously, we’re going to talk about her plays, but I think it’s important to note that she spent her entire life teaching.

Timothy Johnson: Actually, before she actually got her Master's at the Teachers College in Columbia, just based on her training up until that point, her undergraduate degree, she was able to get work as a teacher in the New York City Public Schools in 1918. Yet it was in 1927, that she began her over 30 years of teaching at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn. And she taught English, Elocution and Dramatic Arts. And when I think of teachers, I mean, next to parents, I think that they are the most important roles that one can play in this thing that we call life because of the impact they can have on how an individual sees themselves, how they perceive their possibilities becoming realities. So when I think about the over 30 years that Miss Eulalie Spence taught, ah, what an incomparable contribution to humanity. All of those lives she touched. And one of those lives that I learned about is Joseph Papp. He was a student of Eulalie Spence's at Eastern District High School. And he credits her as being the "most influential person in his life." Wow.

Jo Reed: I know you did a lot of research about Eulalie Spence and her work and I want you to tell me what you found and where you found it.

Timothy Johnson: All the research I did was at the wonderful Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. They have this great, great, great archival collection of things that her estate donated. like, the personal letters, the correspondences that she had with various folks. And, oh, my gosh, I got to tell you, I felt like I was getting this window into her world reading these letters. Like in particular, there was some correspondences between her and a gentleman named Frank S. Horn, actually, Dr. Frank S. Horn. And in these sequences of letters of correspondences between the two, it became quite clear to me that he served as a mentor in her life. And what was so crucial and vital about things that were happening around this time, I'm talking like the early 1920s when the Harlem Renaissance was beginning to truly kick off and people like W.E.B. Du Bois, he started Crisis Magazine, which was an outgrowth of the NAACP and this magazine had playwriting competitions. And one of the stipulations was that it be in a one act form, so Dr. Horn was encouraging her throughout numerous of these letters, "You need to submit your plays to the Crisis Magazine competition." So she did connect with W.E.B. Du Bois and have her work actually presented and produced at the Krigwa Players which was this really wonderful theater company that W.E.B. DuBois started.

Jo Reed: And that turned out to be a fortunate submission. What happened?

Timothy Johnson: In 1927, there was the Fifth International Little Play Tournament and the Krigwa Players decided to submit their production of "Fool's Errand," which was a play by Eulalie Spence, and the set designs were done by none other than Aaron Davis. And please, for the listeners who aren't familiar with Aaron Davis, just Google him and put next to it "Opportunity A Journal of Negro Life." And up will pop his numerous covers for this magazine, his illustrations that will knock you down with the resonance of passion, of bravery, of culture. And so Aaron Davis did the sets and they entered this competition and they were one of the four winners, which meant that they won $200 dollars. So her work was getting a platform. She went on to have no less than four award winning plays. She wrote a total of 14 plays. Only one full length, though. Ah, how I wish she had written more full lengths. And unfortunately, this full length play titled "The Whipping" is not published. It never got a production, though, but the film rights were optioned on her script and she got $5,000 dollars for that which was a sizable amount of money back then in the thirties.

Jo Reed: Will you tell us what made her work so distinctive, Timothy?

Timothy Johnson: Oh, happily. She was able to specifically and personally write her characters in such a way that she made the "ordinary everyday person" extraordinary. And she did this because she was indeed so painstakingly honest about portraying them as human beings, not as some cardboard copies of what someone might think someone who lives in Harlem is like. No. Every single character in these plays that we're presenting are so fully realized. And some of these characters aren't the nicest people in the world. Some do things that aren't the most noble or even just moral. But yet they're human. And we actually, I think in some ways, see them and can take them because of how there is this range in the writing of giving us a window into who they are as human beings. So that's what's so distinctive about the writing. And along with it, she wrote these characters with dialects. And I celebrate the way she did that because as we know, this was a time of the Great Migration where so many moved from the South to the North in hopes of a better life, not only a better life in terms of employment but just a better life in terms of getting away from, oh, my gosh, the Jim Crow in the South which was different from the Jim Crow in the New York City and in Northern States. And my mother was one of those very people who migrated from Salvisa, Kentucky to Cleveland, Ohio. And the thing about these dialects, Jo, I hear my mother in the dialects of these characters. There are these rhythmic patterns in the dialects of her characters that inherently create beats of sound and thought that transmit beyond time and space, connecting the character and the listener to something more which is ancestral and spiritual.

Jo Reed: But this brought her into conflict with W.E.B. Du Bois.

Timothy Johnson: I’m so glad you brought that up. Yup.

Jo Reed: And it was a conflict that was mirrored by Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Tell us what was going on.

Timothy Johnson: Oh, I'd be happy to talk about that. Clearly, there were so many voices like you mentioned W.E.B. Du Bois who wanted to do the best they could once they were able to create these platforms for themselves like Crisis Magazine, like Opportunity. They wanted to put our best foot forward in terms of how we were perceived by the world around us. So some of them thought that to write in dialects or to do “folk plays” a term for which they characterized the plays of Zora Neale Hurston and Eulalie Spence, which are plays about these everyday people. They felt like that wasn't really presenting us in a way that was going to move us forward in the eyes of just the white world in which they were attempting to find some sense of footing and equality. But yet from her perspective, she was like, I'm going to write about these people because these are people who matter and this is real and this is reality. And I'm paraphrasing what she wrote, but she didn't feel as though she had to placate that. She felt like it was important to her that she celebrate who these people were as human beings. And these plays do it. They advocate for representing people in a way that truly was authentic. But she chose to do that and the way she did it. And if you come see this production, let me tell you, you're going to see just how powerfully it is in the writing and the way we give our hearts and souls in artistry to convey it on stage.

Jo Reed: Well, she, like Zora Neale Hurston, told stories about everyday people in the language that everyday people speak. And that was rarely done back then. It was rarely done throughout the 20th Century. We really can see August Wilson as inheriting that mantle and carrying it forward.

Timothy Johnson: Yes. Yes. I have to admit. I've been in love with the theater since I was a kid. I had all the original Broadway cast recordings. I'd go to my Cleveland Public Library and I'd pull out scripts and album covers and I would just sit there for hours. And other than "A Raisin in the Sun," prior to that, I admit, I was ignorant of the writing of other African-American playwrights that told stories about my people in America. So what I find so important is that this unsung work of a Eulalie Spence be given its due because as you said, Jo, here we are, August Wilson, thank goodness, he is indeed talk about one of the giants, not only of African-American theater but of life in America. He is an iconic American, period, because of the way he tells these stories in such a provocative and beautiful and powerful way. And if you were to draw a link back, it was being done earlier, way back in the twenties by a Eulalie Spence, by a Willis Richardson, by a Marita Bonner. I mean, there's so many people. So as you said, yes, Jo, talk about a comparison that's so valid.

Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about the three one-act plays by Eulalie Spence you're directing for the Metropolitan Playhouse. Can you give us a brief glimpse into each?

Timothy Johnson: Oh, I'd be happy to do that, Jo. We're going to start with the play called "The Starter." I should say that all three of these plays are set in Harlem. "The Starter" was written in 1923. It's going to be followed by "Hot Stuff," which was written in 1927 and then "The Hunt," 1927. So "The Starter," "The Starter" is set in a park in Harlem and the story centers around these beautiful characters, Georgia and T.J. And on this particular day, T.J. decides that he's going to get up the nerve to ask Georgia to marry him. So in the course of the play we find out how that all turns out. And I don't want to give it away. And in "Hot Stuff." Ah! It's set in Fanny King's home. Fanny King happens to be a numbers runner. She also has a couple other businesses. She sells dresses. She sells stockings. And she is the central character in this play. It starts out Fanny's on top. She's gotten in a good take of all the people coming and doing numbers and in the course of the day some things turn around for Fanny; So it takes us on a journey of these things and then Fanny gets to confront some of the choices she's made in her life. And then in the final play, "The Hunch," the central character there is Mavis and Mavis has migrated from Raleigh, South Carolina. And she's come to the big city I think with stars in her eyes. She meets a man and gets engaged. And there is a love triangle. And that's all I'll say. I don't want to give away any more of these-- of the good-- of the juicy stuff in these-- in these stories.

Jo Reed: It strikes me that three distinct one-act plays would be very challenging to direct. They may be short, but these are three separate plays. So how did you approach them?

Timothy Johnson: I approach it by being extremely specific about what is driving the text. And the thing that was a thread for me, Jo, in terms of why these three plays, well, as I had mentioned, they're all set in Harlem yet within each one of these plays there's crossover of characters wanting universal things to happen in their lives. There are people who want to experience love. They want some material wellbeing. They want a family. They want to have fun. They want a sense of loyalty. They want to get through the day. And that actually finds its way threading throughout all of these plays. So through the process work -- actually we are about to have our second week of rehearsal tonight-- and last week we spent a significant amount of time just really digging deeply into what is driving these thoughts. Because as you know, drama doesn't exist without conflict and I'm always looking for not only the obvious conflict that's more often than not the external that's coming out of character from an outside source. But what is the internal conflict with the character themselves? What are the things they're wrestling with that are getting in the way of them achieving their objectives? So I get really specific about that, and the relationships between the characters and the whole arc of the journey of the plays, each one having their own journey that all again relate to these overall themes of just wanting to get through the day. And wanting something to happen that can bring them a sense of light. Ah, Eulalie Spence, I think she wants people to experience some light in the course of what it is to get up in the morning and maybe eat a little breakfast if you're able to do that and then you go and do what you do. I think she wants them to experience light. There are moments throughout each one of these plays where that also is a thread, where there is clearly light that enters the space, light as in hope, as in possibility, as in understanding, as in realizations where you see a character grow before your eyes. So that tells you a bit about the process that I'm just so humbled and excited to be on with these plays. And the marvelous company that we're getting to work with at Metropolitan Playhouse.

Jo Reed: And how do you work with the actors? Do you come to a play with a sense of what you're after? Or do you and the actors figure it out together?

Timothy Johnson: That's a great question. I do both. As I would imagine so many directors do, I happily spend a lot of time doing text analysis, just breaking down every single line in terms of what is the action; why is that character saying it; and what do they want and why do they want it? What's the need? What is the personal need for them to want to say these words? And also conflict, what's getting in the way of them achieving these wants? So I spend a lot of time doing that. And I re-read the play literally every day for weeks and weeks before the first day of rehearsal because every time I read it I'm going to learn something new. So by the time I come in the room with the actors, I'm ready in the moment to share with them the impulses that have come to me in terms of what is driving this. And that's where we sit down and do the table work. And yet, I welcome and invite them to share their thoughts. So then it does become a collaboration, particularly when we get up on our feet, when we're moving and we're staging through the space in which we're playing and setting each one of the one-acts, I want the actors to follow their impulse in terms of where a thought is leading them and why. So it's definitely a collaborative relationship. Yet as a director, I feel a tremendous responsibility to come in there ready to actually guide and to lead in service of the text. The text, that's my "Bible." I got to honor that playwright's text. I got to. And yet, yeah, I can have a vision about it, but my vision's got to stem from what I'm sensing from the text.

Jo Reed: Do you like to get actor's on their feet and off book early on in the process?

Timothy Johnson: I love to get them up as soon as possible. And I asked the company the first day of rehearsal, I said, "I'd like you to be off book within a week." And of course I said, "Hey, you can have the script." I think what it does, the sooner you get off book, then the more you can play. The more you're not having to depend upon what am I saying. And If you need a line, oh, we have great stage managers who'll give you your line. So I think that it affords you more freedom to get up and go in as soon as possible. That's been a lot of fun, too, to watch them just grab it and run with it.

Jo Reed: The Metropolitan Playhouse as I remember has a smallish stage, which could be another challenge, especially when you're dealing with three one-act plays in a small space.

Timothy Johnson: Yeah. It's one of the things, I must say, Jo, that I love about the Metropolitan Playhouse. And Alex Roe, who is the Artistic Director. Oh, my gosh, talk about someone who dedicates so much of his heart, his intellect, his passion, his artistry to the Metropolitan Playhouse whose mission is "Finding America one play at a time." And this space, it's a thrust space. It's three-sided. I think there's only 51 seats. We were talking with the designers about ways in which we could simply use the space and decide that from the top of the show, I'm going to make it clear that hey, we're a group of actors and we're going to do some storytelling. It's theatrical. Right from the top of the show, the actors are going to come out and they're going to break the fourth wall. And they're going to be singing. They're going to be signing some music that is very evocative of Harlem. Like I've actually written the music myself and the first song that they sing I titled "Welcome to Harlem," because that's going to be their intent, it's going to communicate welcome. We're here. We know you're there. We know you see us. We want you to see us. We want you to participate in this experience. And then of course there will be a shift and then we'll go into “The Starter” and then there will be a light shift and then the fourth wall comes back up. And so the designs are really simple in that we're having just enough of what we need to stimulate the audience's imagination. That's what we're going to do in that space. We want to stimulate their imagination with the set pieces as well.

Jo Reed: You directed a couple of plays virtually during the pandemic, including "Compromise," which I just mentioned. And while I am so deeply grateful, as are many people who thought of theater online as a lifeline during the pandemic, I wonder what that experience was like for you.

Timothy Johnson: I got to say, I was appreciative that that became a means for not only myself but so many other artists to continue to actually do some work. What it did for me: it made me focus, remind myself to focus again on what's driving the text, what's going on. Of course there was that the screen, and I kept saying to myself, "Timothy, think outside the box in terms of what the audience can see in their own little square Zoom box or their computer screen or their TV screen, however they're viewing this virtual production." You want it to be presented in a way that thinks, that is able to transcend beyond just that square. So that was always driving me too, that I was not going to be limited, nor did I want the actor to be limited. For example, if there was a moment when an actor had an impulse to leave the screen because the character wanted to go get something. I was like, "Get up and go. You do that in real life." So it truly was actually exciting for me to discover that yeah, you got to think outside the box because you want it to truly transmit a sense of reality, not limitation.

Jo Reed: Okay. So let's hear about you now. You were born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. We've been talking about your career as a director. But you're really a Renaissance man. You act. You sing. You write. You teach. And you're an award-winning flutist. So I'm wondering how important the arts were in your life when you were growing up?

Timothy Johnson: Oh, my gosh, Jo. My mother, Jo, my mother raised three boys by herself in Cleveland, Ohio. She was a domestic worker. She got up every day and went to work and cleaned somebody's house. And my mother did it with integrity. And I, interestingly enough, it was through school that I found myself gravitating to the arts. And it was teachers that realized that I could sing a little bit and they encouraged me to sing as well. It my fifth grade school teacher who said, "Timothy, there's a songwriting competition. I know you like music. And they want people to write a song. You got something you want to write?" And I was like, "Okay, I'll come up with something." So I wrote this song. And it ended up winning and then on the radio a woman sang my little song. And it goes like this,


"Spring is here and the birds sing clear, all on a new spring day. Flowers will grow and the children will go, out to play. We'll go on singing long. Love will root as I play my flute. All on a new spring day." And that was the song I wrote, Jo. <laughs> And I hadn't even started playing flute yet, which is crazy, so--

Jo Reed: Oh, my God, that is so charming. And you hadn't even started playing flute yet?

Timothy Johnson: I hadn't even started yet. So it was in junior high school going to music and the teacher said, "What instruments do you want to play?" And I said, "Flute." And because I had heard it and so and I got my undergrad degree in Music Education and flute was my major. Oh. Again, my teachers-- Mr. William Hebert who played piccolo in the Cleveland Orchestra was my flute professor at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music along with Deidre McGuire, who was also my flute professor there. And the encouragement I got. And it was, oh, to tell you a great story about what he taught me about hard work. I wanted to audition for the Concerto Competition, the annual one they had at the Conservatory my junior year and I went to Mr. Hebert and said, "Can I audition?" And he said, "You're not ready." And what that did for me, Jo, I said, "You know what?" to myself, "I'm going to be ready next year. I'm going to be ready. I’m going to be ready." So a year later I'd been working on this piece, a serenade by Howard Hanson and I said, "Mr. Hebert, may I audition this year with this piece?" He said, "Yes. You're ready." And when I won first place, the first person I called was Mr. Hebert. So it just, yeah, talk about a wonderful full circle thing with him. And I started dancing in undergraduate school as well. And I had done, like, one play in high school, "Cheaper by the Dozen."

Jo Reed: It that when you started acting?

Timothy Johnson: Yes. It was in undergrad as well.

Jo Reed: And where did you find the time to do all this?

Timothy Johnson: Where did I find the time to do all of this? (laughs) I did. I did a little theater and then I did some summer stock that the college had a summer stock theater, Berea Summer Theater. I did shows there. And so, and I started dancing, training right there and got a scholarship to Cleveland Ballet and I taught junior high school music; I taught junior high school music for Cleveland Public Schools. During that same time, I had a scholarship in dance at Cleveland Ballet. And then "A Chorus Line," the national tour came through town and they held auditions. I auditioned and I didn't get it but they said, "Stay in touch." And I moved to New York like a couple months later, because I was, like, "I'm going to go try to do this thing." And then about a year later, I auditioned in New York at the Shubert Theater where "A Chorus Line" was then appearing on Broadway in its original run. And lo and behold, I got that, so that began the performance career, yeah. And eventually, I always knew I was going to go back to school. I went back to school and got my MFA in Acting at University of Washington and then started teaching on the college level. I knew I was called to teach as well, because for me, I’m humbled by that relationship of having had so many significant and just compassionate teachers who made me believe that I could be more than maybe I even thought I could be if I was willing to work. And they were going to help me figure out <laughs> what I needed to do to grow, to "reach places in myself that I didn't know existed." They really helped me to do that, so teaching for me has been a marvelous way to do that. And then the directing just kind of happened through teaching at colleges where they'd say, "Hey, do you want to direct something? Or would you do this?" And then I went, "Oh, my gosh. All these things that I've been so fortunate to do as an artist actually are things that can feed this idea of how you actually direct a play." So then I started seeking out some directing work and really fortunate to work with none other than Ruben Santiago-Hudson. I mean, come on, talk about an artist, right, I mean? And so I've been fortunate to assist him. And then Alex Roe gave me that great opportunity to direct "On Survivor's Row" at his theater. And so, yeah, lots of fortunate fun things I've been able to do.

Jo Reed: This is a hard question, but I wonder what you get from theater that you don't get necessarily from music and vice versa, what you get from music that you don't get from theater? I can see how they're similar but I wonder how they're different in terms of fulfilling you?

Timothy Johnson: I think that the thing if I were to put them two on a plane next to each other in terms of comparing the two: with music, there's this remarkable, audible sensation that can happen like playing the flute, yeah, it requires breath support to create the sound. But back to Mr. Hebert, what he used to say to me was that, "Timothy, I don't want to hear you play like a record. If I wanted to hear something perfect, I'd just put on a record. No. No, no, no. I want to hear what is coming from your soul in response to honoring that composer's music." So I find music to be this remarkable means to just truly find its way within every fiber of us through that audible sensation of it entering us and affecting us because it's spiritual. And the theater, I think it, too, can of course offer that audible sensation but also you have these human beings who are also taking on characters who are taking on these stories with a beginning, middle and end that these playwrights craft for us. So I think that's what makes it different. But music and theater—it’s an experience: we as the people in that space that are there, all of us coming in with our own individuality and our perspective, we become connected in that experience.

Jo Reed: And finally, circling back to "She's Got Harlem on Her Mind." What would you like audiences to take away from that play?

Timothy Johnson? I'm hoping that they take away a sense of light, that she truly illuminates in these plays a sense of hope, a sense of understanding. I’m hoping they take a sense of joy away in the ordinary, that they recognize how extraordinary is them getting through the day. I'm hoping they can take away that light, that sense of jubilance, that sense of maybe also looking to their left and right as well and going, "Oh, so I'm not alone in doing this." And maybe encountering conflicts throughout the course of that, of each and every day, let alone the full day but moment to moment. I’m not alone. I’m a part of the greater community of humanity. So I'm hoping they take that realization away. Not that they don't already have it with all due respect, but a greater sense of it and a joyful sense of it because these plays celebrate that light, that realization, that accomplishment to see that yeah, I'm all right. We are all right. We can be better. We can rethink. We can reconsider how we do that, too. But yet let's do it. Let's allow light to maybe be the thing that leads us to want to do more, to exist and co-exist in this precious thing we call life.

Jo Reed: What a good place to leave it. Timothy Johnson, thank you so much. And thank you for all the wonderful work that you do.

Timothy Johnson? Oh, Jo, it's been an absolute honor. I cannot thank you enough for giving me this opportunity to have this conversation with you. And please come out, folks, and see the play. I promise you you're going to have a really joyful experience.

Jo Reed: Timothy, thank you.

Timothy Johnson: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was Timothy Johnson—he’s the director of She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind, an evening of three short plays by influential Harlem Renaissance writer Eulalie Spence. It’s running at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York City until March 12. We’ll have a link to Timothy, Eulalie Spence, She’s Got Harlem on her Mind and the Metropolitan Playhousein our show notes.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Writer Eulalie Spence may not be a household name, but her work and legacy are beloved by theater enthusiasts and students of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work has also had a profound impact on theater director Timothy Johnson, who joins us on this episode of the podcast to talk about his production of three of Spence’s one-act plays called She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind.. A life-long high school teacher as well as a distinguished playwright, (her student Joseph Papp called her “the most influential force in my life") Eulalie Spence’s work in theater explores the lives of everyday people in the language everyday people speak. In addition to Spence’s life and work, Johnson also discusses her professional relationship (and falling out) with W.E.B. Du Bois; the social, political, and cultural climate in the 1920s when Spence did the majority of her work; and how he is bringing the plays to life and into greater prominence at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York City. We also delve into Johnson’s background and some of the many hats he wears as an actor, director, dancer, teacher, writer and award-winning flutist. Johnson’s passion and enthusiasm for the performing arts in general and Eulalie Spence in particular shine through.