Written and Performed by Allen Johnson
November 16, 2005
On the Boards
mp4 file from OnTheBoards.tv
I’ve always wanted pause and back buttons in the theater so when really important things were happening on stage I could make sure I didn’t miss anything. That’s the first thing I loved about the digital file of Another You from OntheBoards.tv. Pause. Rewind. Play again. I also liked that I didn’t have to pay a steep ticket price to see it again (and again and again.) There is something to be said for using digital technology to make theater more accessible to the masses.
I watched it twice, of course with different reactions each time. The first time I was intrigued, and Johnson’s honesty kept me wanting to know what exactly it was he was trying to say. His honesty is brutal, stripped entirely of any apology. Many times it is obscene. Most of his performance I believe would be distasteful to mainstream mores. I wasn’t shocked or sickened though. His kind of brutal honesty that includes body functions and soft porn isn’t anything new. What is new (and refreshing) is how relentless it is. And I think that’s what kept me intrigued with the performance: I felt that he was going to divulge something very real, and that meant I had something at stake: I was curious to know what it was, and on the outside I perhaps had a chance to learn and grow.
I smiled when the performance opened in the dark and with a quote from Diane Arbus. Arbus was a New York-based photographer who made what might best be described as disturbing images of people who were not accepted in the mainstream world: dwarfs, giants, circus people, transvestites—some might call them freaks. Her images have been called hideous and also exploitive. And as the lights came up, we got our first glimpse of Johnson, his pants down, sitting on a toilet. I could only guess that I was in for an hour of something disturbing as Johnson metaphorically defecated.
I guessed right.
Johnson’s performance takes place in a square delineated by light on the floor of the stage. And there’s a toilet. He only leaves this square a couple of times. It’s difficult to know if the square is a jail cell—what else could a stark square with a toilet in full view be?—or does it represent something deeper, more metaphorical? Was it representative of some kind of spiritual cell that he lives within? What I liked about the performance was there wasn’t a pat answer to those questions. After the first time I watched Another You, I was fairly convinced the setting was a real jail cell because I felt that the life this character lived had to have led to a jail cell that then became a sort of confessional. The second time I viewed it, however, I wasn’t so sure because from the beginning I was aware of the catharsis that was about to take place, the catharsis that Johnson tells us about a third of the way into the performance.
At one point early in the performance Johnson tells us there are no truths, only stories. And the stories he tells are deeply personal about deviant sexual behavior and violence tied to sex. They are the kind of stories most of us keep locked up in the same cage with our id, and certainly would never divulge to strangers as Johnson does. He talks about having sex with a vacuum cleaner and masturbating in a public building with a mannequin. And the first time I heard these stories I was mildly amused because Johnson’s persona is very engaging, but in the back of my head I was saying I wish you’d get to the point. I wondered who actually was in the cell, him or me, and I thought that was an interesting question. If you were in jail and you were trapped in a cell with your cellmate, this is what I’d imagine a bit of it would be like. The stories you’d hear would not be the kind you’d hear on a veranda on Martha’s Vineyard. (It is for this reason that I thought he actually was in jail the first time around.)
And then, about a third of the way through his performance, Johnson reveals the lynchpin of this performance. He tells us of an afternoon he had with a woman (and one of the details of this afternoon included this woman’s fist in Johnson’s anus) and that she quoted 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 don’t make known will destroy you.
At the age of three, Johnson was raped by his father. Given the kinds of stories he tells—and at its heart Another You is Johnson as storyteller—this is not surprising. What is surprising is the brutal honesty with which he tells the story one after another after another. The honesty is so understandable though: This is life and death for Johnson. If he doesn’t purge himself of all this filth (recall the image of him at the top of the play sitting on the toilet) it will destroy him. After he tells us the quote from the Gnostic Gospels, I suddenly took on the role of his confessor. I had a role in his survival.
The stories continue. Stories of violence. Stories of his mother hitting him, and Johnson rationalizing the violence. “Violence is inherently intimate,” he says. “The attention is so gratifying” and “It’s a brute form of intimacy” and “The secrecy is a narcotic.” And my mind is spinning. Am I getting insight into some unknown truth? I am the father of two girls. I can’t imagine eliciting intimacy with them through violence. That’s a sick and twisted notion. But then he ends this segment with, “It is so beautifully….wrong.” The ellipse is a very, very long pause, and during that silence I hung on, and when he said it was wrong Johnson and I suddenly had a very strong bond: He and I have lived two entirely different lives, but we have come to the same belief, only by different paths.
Another story tells about Johnson hanging out in porn halls in Times Square (before it was Disneyfied.) He explains he was “…drawn to the company of men…” but you can see that Johnson’s concept of what that means is colored by being raped by his father. By this time I’m really rooting for Johnson. A therapist point-blank tells him that he’s “…participating in compulsive sexual behavior as a direct result of being raped by your father when you were three-and-a-half years old…” Yes! He goes over to a woman’s house and they read books together, sip tea, and lie down together, i.e. words attain intimacy without engaging in any sexual behavior. Yes! Well, they lie together with their shirts up, and there’s no physical violence attached to the act.
After Johnson tells us that he finally experienced intimacy without a sex act linked to it, the performance reaches a dénouement with some stories about his father. These aren’t stories about Johnson’s father, the child molester. They are about his father, the storyteller. Without writing details, it suffices to know that Johnson intimates that he got his knack for storytelling from his father. These final stories are loving, yet guarded. In one he tells of how his father would lift him and his brother up on the kitchen counter and just talk—just tell them stories—while he’d occasionally reach up in the cabinet and take a sip of whiskey. The final, poignant story tells of how they went out on jobs together (his father was a HVAC repairman, a trade in which Johnson also worked) and how the front seat of his father’s truck was where Johnson would tell stories. And he talks about how his father said he would love to stay there all night and listen, but that they had to go inside. And with that story I understood the confusion Johnson felt toward his father, because again, as a parent, I can’t imagine inflicting so much pain and destruction on your children and at the same time giving them so much love and support.
Johnson’s work reminded me of something Tim O’Brien said about the Vietnam War and his work. He said that the war took away his innocence, but gave him his art. I think the same can be said for Johnson. While his father destroyed his innocence and left so much damage, at the same time through theater Johnson seems to have found a voice.
So much has been written about the bond between parents and children. While every person’s experience is unique, I liked the way Johnson uncovered the complexities that exist between fathers and sons. My own father was a very tough man, and I know exactly the confusion that Johnson talks about because, on one hand, my father could be so harsh, yet in retrospect I can see he had love for me that he simply couldn’t express. I don’t want to play pop psychologist, but in a situation like that you honestly don’t know how to behave because we learn from our same sex parents and if that parent is giving conflicting signals the child becomes confused. It’s a wonderful piece of theater when you can accomplish what Johnson has: Purged demons from his life through the honest retelling of a very painful story, and also touch other people on a universal level.