Theater companies and director find "Joy" together
Career paths can be crazily crooked. Ask Dennis F. Johnson.
The West Allis native is directing his first big professional stage production, "Crumbs From the Table of Joy," in an unusual joint effort of two Milwaukee theater companies, Renaissance Theaterworks and Uprooted Theatre. He has prepared for the job by working under some of the state's leading directors.
But despite a lifelong attachment to theater, getting to this moment was neither easy nor certain.
Johnson, the high profile general manager of Transfer Pizzeria and Cafe, saw his first play at the age of 3, and he began acting classes at 5. He was involved in the high powered theater program at Pius XI High School while a student there, and assistant directed a modern retelling of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Pius a year after graduating.
However he took a vocational detour, spending three years as a modern dance major at UWM while working a third shift management position at Columbia-St. Mary's Hospital. The job led him to switch majors and invest two years in a health care administration program at UWM.
Johnson eventually got around to studying theater at the school, and in 2009 he partnered with actors Travis A. Knight, Marti L. Gobel and Tiffany Yvonne Cox in founding the new African-American stage company Uprooted Theatre. That is how he and his colleagues became involved with Renaissance Theaterworks.
"They asked us how to start a theater," Renaissance co-founder Suzan Fete recently explained. "When we started (in 1993) people were so nice to us, and we wanted to pass it on, share our knowledge and experience."
About that time, Johnson, Knight and Gobel were involved in the Renaissance production of "The Persians." Johnson was the assistant director on the project, and Knight and Gobel were actors. Personal ties were formed between the two theater companies' personnel.
Renaissance is on a mission to increase ethnic diversity in its audiences and tell more stories about people of color, and a joint production with Uprooted was discussed. The two groups chose to co-stage Lynn Nottage's mid-'90s drama "Crumbs From the Table of Joy."
Nottage is a Yale School of Drama graduate and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant whose play "Ruined" won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The Milwaukee Rep produced her "Intimate Apparel" in the Stiemke Theater a few years ago.
"Crumbs," set in Brooklyn in 1950, is a domestic drama about a black family struggling with the death of the mother and a move north from Florida. It has been given many regional productions around the country, including separate stagings 10 years apart by Chicago's two biggest theater companies, Steppenwolf and the Goodman.
"UW (Madison) did the play in 2003, and we loved it," Fete said, speaking for her Renaissance associates. "We had talked among ourselves about producing it."
The "Crumbs" cast will include Uprooted co-founders Cox and Gobel; Ashleigh LaThrop, who spent last summer with the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, and Cassandra Bissel, whose credits include playing the mother in the Milwaukee Rep production of "My Name Is Asher Lev" last fall.
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