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On a Journey with Allen Johnson’s ANOTHER YOU

“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.” – Gnostic Gospels (as quoted by Johnson in Another You).

Allen Johnson’s Another You premiered at Seattle’s On The Boards Theatre in 2005 to great acclaim, but Johnson’s path to the theatre was atypical. The son of a New Jersey boiler mechanic, Johnson kept a journal throughout high school which he credits as his way into self expression. He then attended Rutgers for four years but left school with a .125 grade point average resulting from a refusal to take exams due to his disgust with the academic evaluation process. He then went to New York and worked briefly at a Wall Street bank, moved back to New Jersey where he wrote poetry and worked as a truck driver before getting hit by a car while crossing the street. In 1991, he decided to use his settlement money to move to Seattle, where he had heard talk of a vital music and spoken word poetry scene. When he arrived there, he found work as a boiler mechanic and began to attend Seattle theatre mainstays like AHA! and Theatre Schmeater. He read Spalding Gray, Peter Brook, and Grotowski. Eventually, he met director Sean Ryan. He told Ryan he was experimenting with spoken word and Ryan convinced him to develop a piece that began at seven minutes and ended as the full-length version of Another You.

Another You begins in the dark with a quote from Diane Arbus, an iconic New York-based misfit photographer. When the lights come up we see Johnson sitting on a toilet, posed for defecation. From these two opening images I could already glean that the piece would perhaps have purgative elements, or be about expressing and examining what is often stopped up inside us. When the lights come up on Johnson, he is wearing a black t-shirt and jeans and standing in a diamond shaped light box with only the toilet in the frame.

What follows is a series of stories told by Johnson to us, stories from Johnson’s life that center on his sexual and/or violent past experiences. The mood is casual, as if Johnson is across from us at a bar. His first stories are from his early childhood into puberty, centering on one story in which a 15 year old Johnson would “have sex with” his vacuum cleaner waiting to finish until he could watch his female mail carrier walking away. He describes the kind of woman he wants to find as an adult: one with whom he can openly share every facet of who he is, even the unadulterated joy he finds in minutes spent alone in a bathroom, reading, thinking, defecating, feeling at home. By this point, there did not seem to be much that was inherently “theatrical” about the piece to me, except I suppose for the act of telling stories to an audience. Johnson reminded me mostly of a stand-up comedian — dressed casually, telling sexually-explicit stories to a laughing audience. I began to form some prejudices about him. His piece seemed to me misogynistic and rambling, and I didn’t know what my role as an audience member was supposed to be or why this piece was even taking place in a theatre.

However, about a third of the way through the piece, Johnson tells a pivotal story: when he was three years old, his father raped him. I was struck by the simplicity with which he tells the story, focusing on the exact sequence of events. He recalls his father saying, “Come here, I’m gonna make a faggot outta you,” and then the exact physical sensations he felt in the moment, rather than recounting any feelings of sadness or confusion. While he tells his story, the lights narrow to a single spotlight, the toilet and light box disappear and we see only Johnson, subtly bent over as he describes a flash of extreme pain, [we sit in fifteen seconds of silence] and then, nothing.”

After that story, the lights come up on Johnson standing erect again in the light box with the toilet. The stories that follow are mostly about his young adult life and range from various casual sex encounters with women to a story about his predilection for visiting porn houses in pre-Giuliani Times Square where he would find himself drawn to the “company of men” (otherwise known as giving and receiving blow jobs from strangers with whom the connection was, as Johnson notes, over when it was over and purely physical). He describes visiting his then-therapist and telling her that he was confused — he thought he might be gay. His therapist told him that he was actually a “classic closet heterosexual” obsessively searching for an intimate experience with a man as a result of having been raped by his father. I began to see all of Johnson’s sexual exploits as a search for intimacy. Oddly, he speaks similarly about violent acts in his life, eve his own mother hitting him. He even refers to violence as a form of intimate interaction for him as a child who was not hugged often. I find it fascinating that even during these abusive, painful experiences, Johnson was still thinking about the human interaction taking place under the rage and loss of control.

Finally, Johnson experiences intimacy that was not part of a sexual act: a massage therapist he had come home with simply lifted up her shirt and his so that “more bare skin could be touching” and the two lay there like that for a long time, just feeling close and connected. He tells us that she had quoted the Gnostic Gospels that night: “”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.” At this point, I began to understand the light box and toilet as a sort of prison-of-the-mind and the piece Another You as a purgative act in and of itself: Johnson spoke to us in order to fully content with the complicated feelings that lie within him as a means toward survival. In that way, we as the audience become the vehicle for Johnson making known what is within him so that he might conquer his own destruction.

What I loved most about the piece was that one of its final stories was about young Johnson going out on repair jobs with his father. After they arrived home, Johnson would sit in the front seat of his father’s pickup truck and his father would ask Johnson to talk about what he was thinking. Johnson would talk, and his father would listen.  After an hour or so, Johnson’s father would say something like, “Son, we have to go inside now, but I want you to know how much I enjoy doing this with you. Just talking and listening.” I liked this story as a closing one not because it paints Johnson’s father in a more sympathetic light, but rather because it speaks to Johnson’s attempt to come to a complicated understanding of how his father has shaped his life and, even more impressively, to find some compassion for his father. It is a glimpse of a human man, not a child molester, who wants to understand his son, to have  meaningful connection with him.

In an audio interview Johnson conducted with On The Boards, Johnson refers to himself as a member of the American white male group, a group which, these days, is frequently marginalized artistically because it is assumed that they do not have a story. While I do not agree that the white male voice is marginalized, I certainly do agree that the working class, abused white male voice is underrepresented in fine art. Johnson said it saddened him when audience members would ask why he had written such a misogynistic piece since he has actually spent a great deal of time learning from feminists who focus on honest portrayals of the varied female experience. He calls his piece an invitation to other men to speak, to say, “This is who I am, and it’s really OK.” Although the piece is “unrelentingly libidinous”, he hopes that we understand that that is just who he is, and that his identity comes out of his early experiences with sex and violence, and not out of some desire to objectify or subjugate females. This was a difficult leap for me to make until I thought about one of the central hallmarks of proper manhood today (especially working class manhood): repression, the destructive force Johnson is fighting against. On the connection between intimacy and physical violence, Johnson wrote (the punctuation is mine):

“Physical violence has informed who I am on a deep, deep level. The ostensible and real fact of physical pain — like if you get the shit beat out of you it hurts and that’s true. And that’s not a pleasant experience. I don’t want to minimize those facets of physical violence. I don’t want to just represent difficulty. I want to use that difficulty as a starting point for a larger conversation about what exactly is that need that we have societally to beat up on each other? What I’m trying to get to is: What kind of connection, what kind of expression is at the root of that? Taking away the fact that you or you or me has had the shit beaten out of them, OK great, what is that a poor substitute for? What is one person trying to say to another when a 28 year old father grabs his 3 and a half year old son and bashes his head against a wall? I’m not asking those questions because I am trying to cover up pain. I’m older now and I’ve spent some time with those issues. I’d like to step up to the plate and say, “I get it.” I’d like to be welcomed to the table. Once I’m at the table I’d like to ask, “What is all that terrible violence really trying to say?” In other words, what would these violent people have said if they had been more in touch with themselves or done if vulnerability were more of an option? It brings us right back to the Gnostic Gospels quotation.

I intentionally picked a piece that I knew nothing about and that did not seem very related to my own life. Middle-aged males broke down crying at many performances during the piece’s tour. The exquisitely complicated facets of the father and son relationship, that many men had buried beneath layers of false coping until Johnson brought them to light, resonate with me on an intellectual and emphatic level but not on a personal one. However, what does personally resonate with me is Johnson’s honesty and bravery when it comes to choosing to forgive and try to understand his father’s identity, struggles, and actions. When he says he wants to “be welcomed to the table” it sounds to me as if he is saying he wants to arrive at a transcendant place through introspection; one at which he can end the cycle of hate and fear that abuse causes and he means he wants to come to a compassionate, new understanding of his father or any abusive person who was not able to confront his or her inner demons. It is as if Johnson confronts his own in their name.

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