#PersonOfChange: An interview with playwright Johnny G. Lloyd
One of the interesting things about representation on stage is that there’s such a locational barrier to seeing most theater in the first place — if you’re not in a cultural hub, you likely won’t have a chance to experience work that’s not centered around white, cisgender, often male privilege.
A native of Asheville, NC and now a Manhattan based writer and producing director, Johnny G. Lloyd (he/his) has had work presented at 59E59, Dixon Place, The Tank, Judson Memorial Church, Theatre Lab (Boca Raton, FL), FringeNYC and more. He’s a semi-finalist for the 2018 Open-Application Commission at Clubbed Thumb and the 2017–2018 Shubert Fellow for Playwriting at Columbia University. He is the producing director of InVersion Theatre. MFA Candidate in Playwriting at Columbia University. Currently his play Patience, a portrait of a young black man struggling to build a life with other people when all he’s learned so far is how to be alone, is playing at the Corkscrew Theatre Festival.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think “being a writer” is a constant process. I’d been writing in various mediums since I was young. But, I would say I knew I wanted to write plays that got produced in my mid-20’s. I had been on an arts administrator track, spending time at agencies and general management offices, and I was also producing with my theatre company InVersion Theatre, but I still felt constricted, like I wasn’t allowing myself to express myself fully. For me, being a playwright meant expressing a certain kind of vulnerability that was simultaneously terrifying and familiar — the shift that happens when actors and a director take over and bring life to a piece is so exciting because it’s so deeply collaborative. When you’re producing, or working in admin, there’s not that same sense of letting go of your aspect of the work. When you’re the playwright, you’re constantly having to let go, rediscover, and renew your understanding of what you’ve done, and I think that it fosters this connection between you and your work and your collaborators that I was really craving.
When was the first time you saw yourself represented on stage or film?
I grew up in the middle of the Toonami phase of Cartoon Network, so I’d say the first character I truly found myself connecting with was Sailor Mercury. I think as a person of color growing up in the 90’s in a more rural area, and retroactively looking back and seeing myself as a queer kid, I, like many other people, looked for myself in other avatars that might not have resembled me but did represent qualities I saw in myself in some way. One of the interesting things about representation on stage is that there’s such a locational barrier to seeing most theater in the first place — if you’re not in a cultural hub, you likely won’t have a chance to experience work that’s not centered around white, cisgender, often male privilege. As conversations of representation on stage open up, I hope we find ways to consider how to shift this aspect.
What can you tell us about your play, ‘Patience’?
Patience is a story about the price of black excellence, and how the push to be excellent can stifle and stunt instead of create growth. I think I grew up feeling like the room for error was very small; my family definitely believed in the ‘better than the best’ mentality, and I think an unfortunate side effect of that mentality is that failure is destructive instead of an opportunity to learn. And too often, due to a mixture of internalized and externalized racism, black failure is equated with violence against the black body, which case be absolutely paralyzing. I wanted to explore how this can create a void of indecision — what does it mean to be on top and feel as though that’s the only thing keeping your feet on the ground. I wanted to explore this both professionally and personally — how do you commit to a relationship when it’s hard to commit to yourself?
How did the idea of Solitaire come about?
I’m always really interested in using existing systems to provide structure and thematic resonance to my work. I gravitated towards solitaire because this was going to be a play about a single person putting pieces together and attempting to solve what might be an unsolvable puzzle, much like the game itself.
Is this the first time your work is being presented at Corkscrew Theater Festival? What has the experience been like?
This is my first time working with Corkscrew; it’s been absolutely amazing because the Corkscrew team is simultaneously so present and also allows you to create what you need to create without limitation. When you need them, they’re there for you, but not in a way that feels didactic. Their primary goal is to support artists, which I’ve found is the way to avoid tokenism and truly create an open space for diverse collaborators.
What is a moment in the production that surprises you every night?
Ella (Daniel’s competitor, played by Kristin Dodson) is an outsider just beginning to realize she’s entering a world of insiders, and there’s a moment when she begins to realize this by accidentally walking into a proverbial lion’s den which I always find fascinating to watch.
When did you know you and and director Velani Dibba would be the right fit? What do you look for in a director?
Velani Dibba and I began workshopping this piece at Columbia University in 2018, and I gravitated towards her for the piece because I knew her commitment to showing and elevating text through clean storytelling and suspected that the piece would have some personal resonance as well. A lot of our early conversations were about feeling pressure to succeed in traditional spheres — both of us studied international relations and ultimately chose theatre — and how those pressures were both internal and external. When I’m looking for a director, I always try to find someone who I’ll connect with and who will connect with the piece but will have a different entry point into the piece than I do. While my original access point for the piece was through the lens of the relationship between Daniel and his fiancé, Jordan, Velani brought a specificity to the relationship between Daniel and his mother/manager that was so important in terms of humanizing and solidifying both characters.