A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON OF CHICAGO'S DEFIANT THEATRE COMPANY
"See, truth, like dope, is a controlled substance. And this homegrown comedy speeds through decades of social policy to figure out just who's bogarting the facts, rolling in the profits, and mainlining the opiate of sensationalism. From beatnik jazz clubs to the halls of Congress, the mud of Woodstock to DEA headquarters, the coke labs of Central America to the Oval Office -- Dope takes you on a whirlwind tour of the Drug War's dens of iniquity as well as its halls of power. You get to decide which are sleazier. We're puffing on the politics of drug control, and by curtain call, you'll be waiting to inhale."
Charles Shaw interviews Christopher Johnson, playwright, actor/director, founding member of Chicago's Defiant Theatre Company, and author of the new play DOPE!
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
The Defiant Theater Company has always lived up to its name. But in truth their defiance is incidental, part and parcel of being a revolutionary concept in the Chicago independent theater scene, the same scene that made the famed Steppenwolf Theater Company a worldwide sensation. But unlike Steppenwolf, who has millions of dollars and international stars in the ensemble, Defiant struggles along penniless, maintaining its integrity by offering the Off-Loop theater contingency (Chicago's version of Off-Broadway) innovative works beyond the pale of tradition and convention. In simpler terms, Defiant cares more about the message than the messenger. And for a town who's theater scene has scores of clones and drones clamoring for popularity, Defiant seems content to maintain its posterity.
Founded ten years ago by University of Illinois Theater Conservatory students, Defiant arose organically as a result of the restrictions imposed on them by the university program. Fed up with not being able to indulge their creativity, they began to request usage of a derelict "Black Box" theatre to produce their own shows. Working outside the oppressive constraints of the Conservatory taught them all the necessary skills to do Off-Loop guerilla theater in Chicago, such as operating on shoestring budgets and managing the inflexible "real life" day job schedules that most struggling actors contend with most of their careers. The founding members moved to Chicago in 1993 and did Hamlet. Initially they played to houses of 8-15 people. They have done three shows a year since, making it 10 years running, and now they play to full houses and have a respectable number of cherished season subscribers, which has defied all the odds and outlasted scores of other companies. There are theater companies in Chicago that make much more money, but not one that does material half as original as Defiant, and that is what makes them so precious to Chicago's revered theatre scene.
DOPE is a raging satire about the hypocrisy of the drug war. It is insanely funny and inventive, but also smacks of hard truth and the unspoken terror of what specifically are the underlying agendas of the drug war, and how the problem does not seem poised to go away anytime soon. What makes this play unique is that it is the first piece I am aware of that encapsulates American drug policy across our nation's entire 226 years of existence, and presents what is at first glance a divisive and inflammatory, emotionally charged issue in a manner that is far more accessible than its sobering truth often permits.
In these times of implied conformity and renewed McCarthyist fervor over dissenting opinions and so called "Un American" activity, it is nice to see DOPE emerge independently, without any overt political agenda or group of affiliation. Christopher Johnson, a founding member of Defiant and the play's author, is not the typical radical-artist. He is rather unassuming, polite, relatively happy and generally affable. But underneath that you can sense the frustration and turmoil. Johnson rankles at hypocrisy in all forms, personal and political. And worse, hates being labeled "paranoid", particularly when he has taken the time to painstakingly research the facts and assertions in his plays. But his ire somehow manages to manifest as totally brilliant and innovative satire. In short, Johnson is the kind of artist Chicago should be proud to have, if Chicago ever bothered to sit up and take notice of its underground talent. Of course, Defiant is only underground because they do original material. Had they chosen to fill their seasons with Lanford Wilson or David Mamet standards, they might find themselves in their own ten million dollar building. Instead, they migrate from theater to theater like most nomadic companies in this town, accepting their poverty. But the experience of a Defiant play is anything but poor.
During his Defiant tenure, Johnson has served in the capacity of director (Macbeth, Hamlet, Red Dragon, Apt Pupil), playwright (Godbaby), adapter (Red Dragon, Apt Pupil), actor (Burning Desires, Phaedra's Love, Action Movie, Caligula, Dracula, Ubu Raw, The Skriker, The Ugly Man, Women and Water, and Landscape of the Body), and administrator (Artistic Director 1993-2000).
I sat down with Chris just as rehearsals for DOPE were commencing. I found in him a kindred spirit, and one I am proud to introduce to a much larger world audience.
3AM: What "turned you on" to this issue?
CJ: Well, it's been a long time coming. I grew up in McCullum, Illinois, a semi-rural college town in the western part of the state. I went to High School out there in 1985 and soon learned (and now keep this as a rule of thumb) that everybody in semi-rural college towns smokes pot. So, I started as well in High School
3AM: Before we continue, I want to ask you why is it, in your opinion, that in that exact type of community that you describe, everyone smokes pot with a smile-on-the-face, commonplace attitude? Especially considering that politicians use towns like yours as examples of the places they are trying to protect from the spread of the so-called inner-city scourge or drugs and violence? Heartland America, Anytown, USA and all that? Do you resent having that identity imposed on you?
CJ: What really irritated me was alcohol and what it did to the community. Everybody drank like fish, non-stop keggers and college [parties, drinking till you puke. I was only into geeky, intellectual pursuits back then, art and theater and such, and I preferred to smoke pot. Most of my friends did too, because we could chill out and enjoy it more. I remember in the 80's the Ron and Nancy "Just Say No" speech and I remember it occurring to me that this was all bullshit, what the Reagans were telling us, because I had experimented with a wide variety of minor-league drugs and substances, and I found that overwhelmingly the most scary and damaging of them all was alcohol. I mean, I understood that at 16 I really shouldn't have been drinking or doing drugs, despite the fact that Europe doesn't have half the teen abuse problems we do. But I knew that I smoked pot without negative consequence, and conversely my Dad was drinking really heavily and I witnessed the negative consequences of that. I mean, he wasn;t a falling down violent drunk, but you could see the impact. And then there was the fact that there was really disconnect between what I had seen on TV and had rammed down my throat about drug use, and what I was experiencing in my actual life. What that led to was that I didn't trust these guys [anti-drug crusaders] much. Then I went to college and started reading the history and connecting the dots between American History and Foreign Policy and the thinks you don't hear about in High School or the mainstream press. And then after I got out of college I came around to reading a lot more specifically about the drug war, but it wasn't an issue I was too carried away with except for the fact that I knew most of it was all bullshit and I should be able to smoke pot legally.
Starting to read in depth about the political maneuvering and then learning that the CIA was involved in exploiting the drug trade during Iran-Contra, I remembered all I had heard about them trafficking heroin during Vietnam and then the LSD "mind-control" experiments, and it all began to sink in. Sometime in the mid-90's I decided to write a play about it after I had finished writing, Godbaby: A History of Christianity. That play was a big experiment in regards to the format I was using to cover a huge chunk of history, having characters appearing and disappearing in a rapid-fire way while trying to encapsulate all the history for the layman in a way that was really fun and entertaining…and of course it had to be a farce and satire, because what I was trying to do was point out the ridiculousness of it. It was a massive experiment that we weren't sure was going to work, to appeal to people. But it did work, people got it, found it entertaining and seemed to take away the points I was trying to make without being terribly confused. So, having a successful format like that I felt I had to opportunity to explore a bunch of other important historical topics.
Originally I was going to do a History of America, but considering the idea of writing essentially an eight-hour play made me rethink the whole idea. I figured, I wanted to find a through-line that would allow me to explore the same things, and the drug issue was a thing that had occurred to me because from what I knew, pretty much anything shady in American history that I wanted to explore had drugs as a through-line. It was indicative of so much involving governmental corruption, racism, classism, all the things I wanted to hit on the forehead. And if I wrote a play about drugs, I would invariably cross all these topics.
Personally, this is very important too. If the drug laws didn't exist, I and my friends, and I imagine you as well, would be completely law-abiding citizens. I mean, I bitch a lot, but isn't one supposed to do that in a democracy? I work and I pay my taxes, I don't litter. But because of the drug laws, I am considered a criminal and should be in jail because at various points in my life I have used and been in possession of marijuana and a few other substances. Me and all my friends and all the people I love, according to our drug laws, deserve to be in jail. That is horseshit! On behalf of these people who do not deserve to be vilified, I chose to write this play.
What's interesting about DOPE is that, despite the original length and how much I had to cut away and pare down, for every scene that exists these is another scene along the same topic that could take its place. That's how pervasive this issue is. For example, I had to ask myself, Do I talk about the CIA trafficking heroin through the French "mafia" during the Vietnam War to finance covert operations in Cambodia and Laos, or did I want to deal with the CIA/LSD mind experiments, and I chose to deal with the LSD experiments because they lead into the whole importance and role of Timothy Leary, which was a through-line for the story as a whole, and made it more connected to events going on in this country. So, in a lot of ways I think the play is woefully incomplete because I think part of me wants to write history books and be that thorough, but I'm in the art form I'm in, and I stick with what I'm good at. But it's a real good education for people who wouldn't normally read a history book, and for those who don't know much about the truth behind the drug war, it's going to be hugely informative. I will be publishing a bibliography along with the program, so hopefully it will encourage people to go out and read more themselves, to fill in the gaps I left.
3AM: Were you at all inspired by the Ron Mann documentary film, Grass?
CJ: I haven't seen it yet.
3AM: Well, that's excellent then because it confirms my belief that this is a spontaneously occurring movement.
Let me throw something at you. Juggling real application and theory here, I think the drug war largely parallels the Gay Rights movement in that what was ultimately occurring was the attempt by a government to legislate morality, both unofficially through the influence of Religion, and directly through Sodomy laws, which made homosexual activity criminal, and thus made Gays and Lesbians criminals just by their very existence. This was criminalizing someone's intimate, personal choice and lifestyle, much like casual drug users, particularly marijuana smokers, are being persecuted for their largely benign, non-violent, non-intrusive lifestyle choice of personal and private habits. They are legislating shame. Just like "pornography". What is shameful about the human body? I mean, granted there are limits and parameters, but still…personal choice. I think that what led the Gay Rights movement out of the moral argument into the pantheon of Human Rights was, tragically, the AIDS epidemic, which forced a whole community to band together, get organized, get active, and force the government, who couldn't have cared less whether they lived or died, to finally become accountable and help them. I don't think the drug reform movement has that kind of cause or unity yet, because those who are most affected, again just like the early days of the AIDS epidemic, are those people whom the government and morality legislators like Conservative and Religious leaders, deem "undesirable", "immoral", or threatening. As long as the mainstream, white, Christian public thinks that only Black people and junkies are the victims of the drug war, no one will care. What made the marijuana reform movement gather steam in the Sixties and Seventies was that scores of young, white, middle-class kids, the children of the "great silent majority" that put Nixon in office, started getting locked up in prison for simple possession. This forced Nixon, when he rewrote all the American drug laws in 1970 with the Drug Abuse and Controlled Substance Act, to eliminate mandatory sentencing for marijuana offenses, despite his draconian war against marijuana. This was only one tiny sliver of drug war hypocrisy. After that, the focus shifted to eliminating the so-called "Black threat", and in that regard has been hugely successful. Ask the average American what the first image that comes into their head is when you mention drug dealer, and they picture a Black or Latino male. In this, we are letting he drug war divide us again on all levels, and it all continues to feed the conservative government agenda and allows them to perpetuate this wholly unconstitutional war.
So, that being said, what do you think will bring together these disparate groups to finally unite against the drug war?
CJ: In terms of predicting the future, if this movement has one, I don't know. The threat of imminent extinction tends to bring people together in that way, but I would think that the Communication Age will have a lot to do with it, the fact that people are communicating so much more openly and freely, and so much information is at our fingertips, I just think we are moving into a time, post Cold War and post 9/11, where there is a lot of assessment in people's minds of exactly what is America. What are we, what are we supposed to be, what to we want to be, what are we trying to be…
3AM: …and what are we actually doing, and what are the consequences of those decisions…
CJ: Exactly. If people are getting more informed and learning about how the government divides and conquers, eventually we hope they'll begin to wake up. But yes, it does have to hit home with the personal and the private. The thing about the Gay Rights analogy you brought up is that sexual orientation is so overwhelmingly a part of who you are as a person, whereas drug use-smoking pot-isn't such an integral part of who you are, it's more of a choice…an adjunct to your personality.
3AM: So, you negate the transformative experience drug use, particularly marijuana, has on people? The intense manner in which it changes people's perceptions of the world and expands their consciousness and understanding?
CJ: I would argue that psychedelic experiences are very powerful and transformative, largely in a positive sense, but these experiences aren't as all-encompassing. What I mean is, I would find it a bit rude if I suggested that my pot-smoking was on par with someone's sexual preferences. It's easier for me to keep my pot hidden away, smoke it when I want to in the privacy of my home, and feel happy and unoppressed than it would be if my sexual preference was criminalized in the same way. What I think the pro-pot movement needs is a bunch of vocal, respectable people to strap on ties and step forward and say, "look, I'm no denizen, I'm not hanging around on a street corner, I am a productive person and I enjoy this and get something positive from it." The problem is there are a lot of people like that, but whereas for a gay person it seems more urgent and imperative to suffer the indignities of expressing ones rights in a public sense, it seems like the stakes are not as high for pot smokers to stand up and assert themselves, like the repercussions of that right now aren't worth it because people can just go home and do it privately without consequence. It isn't worth it for casual drug users to assert their right to freedom of choice right now.
3AM: Let's take a different bend in the road here. Think of it more like this…if you look at the way that ruling bodies throughout history have tried to manipulate the people, probably across the board the most common, effective means was to get inside their bedrooms and legislate their sexual thoughts, opinions and practices, by occluding the pathways to their deepest passions and emotions, filling them with fear and shame and hatred. I don't think that any pot smoker would argue with my assertion that it makes you a much more sensitive, emotionally-connected person, being more prone to passive behavior, peace, unity, acceptance. Alcohol has the exact opposite by removing the mechanism that keeps our deepest, darkest, most negative feelings and hostilities in check. It fosters violence, it causes widespread injury and death, and is a powerful depressant. By attacking things like marijuana, LSD, Ecstasy…in the big picture, what they are really doing is attacking the means by which we become more aware, transform, grow, become more independent, more in touch with the real human condition and making us feel the pain of injustice and such and want to help those less fortunate. So by ruling bodies not being able to attack our religious or sexual preference, let's call these Level One priorities in our lives, they take one step back to Level Two and decide to attack the personal habits of the people which they consider a threat, the people who see through their hypocrisy and see the way they are being manipulated and decide to rally against it. I mean there is a huge correlation between people who have used drugs casually and those who embody the more "liberal" position in life that is more empathetic, sympathetic, and aware of injustice. I mean, look at this Conservative Christian model of family that is being pushed on us by our current government, so much so that they are giving tax breaks to married couples and such as incentive to embrace that lifestyle. But that model dismisses love, passion, and freedom of expression. One does not need to be married in a mutually beneficial financial arrangement to express love towards each other. What this model promotes is pragmatism, which is antithetical to our nature, and doesn't want to conform to unnatural boundaries. I am not talking about the old "free love" concept, but I am talking about the freedom to love in any way you see fit. This model excludes those of the liberal or agnostic persuasion, and those involved in alternative lifestyles. You see the trend here? Despite its history, marriage should not be a vehicle for economic development.
CJ: I've always thought myself that the whole criminalization of drugs thing was an attack on a certain socio-political ideology that threatened the establishment. Nixon kind of embodied that idea.
NOTE: At this point, I had to flip the tape, so we decided to break and have some "refreshments". Well, what did you expect? You think we're going to sit and talk about pot for two hours and not have any? At any rate, as it is difficult to convey the "toke inhale voice", cough, or any other smoking nuance in print,, I will just say that the practice continued for most of the latter part of the conversation. As you will see, neither of us became psychotic, insane, gay, communist, violent, or completely detached from our senses and incapable of carrying on a coherent thought process. Neither did the usage of the word "man" increase in any appreciable sense. - CS.
3AM: You have talked about how you personally came to write DOPE. How did Defiant come around to actually producing it?
CJ: Basically, after we did Godbaby in the Summer of 2000 we wanted to do another show like it, a sweeping, political historical play. I wanted to say something important, so I chose DOPE out of the three projects I was considering.
3AM: What did the company think of it?
CJ: They thought it was great! Everybody in the company smokes pot, and I would go so far to say that the company is a great example of the way America is. Everyone has their own set of political beliefs and although largely living in the Leftist area they are all very individual about it. They are smart people but they are frustrated and they don't know what to say about it. They are visceral artists, not intellectual political types like me who could go on for hours about things. So, they were all for it.
3AM: And the politics of it?
CJ: On the whole they all pretty much think the government is not very trustworthy, although many of the more conservative members of the company tend to think I'm a bit of a paranoiac, that I look for these connections too much. But no one has expressed any strong feelings against it.
3AM: Well, my opinion is that any thinking person knows the truth and just reacts differently to it. Of those that react strongly, I believe that much of the hostility is just misdirected anger at the fact that they realized they were duped along with everyone else, and the disillusion they feel about learning that the Great American Dream is largely hogwash is overpowering, and it is much easier to direct that anger and hostility at the opposition, as they embody and personify the true shame of realization.
CJ: Yes, and so they were all behind me, but one thing I am trying to change is the fact that because I write these plays and do the research, my company largely takes it on faith that the material is true and accurate. I want them to go check it out themselves.
3AM: My greatest fear is that both sides of the issue and the beliefs that drive them have been so co-opted and malformed that people don't know what to believe anymore, and so they just parrot what they hear because it's easier. It is not easy to go digging up this information, and to uncover much of the truth necessitates wading through oceans of propaganda. It's hard to work in this area without letting your anger blind your judgment, so it's nice to see a group like Defiant doing this autonomously from any political group.
CJ: Yes. I think that's also part of our identity, the fact that we chose such edgy material without co-opting the term "edgy". There was a British Playwright, Sarah Kane, who would have been 31 now had she not committed suicide two years ago. Her work was brilliant but totally insane. We did two of her plays, an American premiere and a Chicago premiere. We tried to make contact with her while she was alive, but she was institutionalized. Anyway, the critics savaged us for doing her plays, claimed they were utter crap…that was until she committed suicide. Then she was the most brilliant and innovative playwright ever, if a bit dark and disturbing. But we do stuff like that, with literal sexual and violent content.
3AM: Are you intentionally trying to have shock theater?
CJ: Sometimes. There are shows where there are elements of shock, there are also shows where shock doesn't figure in at all. Sometimes it is unintentional shock value because of the dangerous, visceral nature of our staging or our fight choreography, something that people are blown away with. We overwhelm people with the scope of the way we produce our plays, but it is natural to us. Trying to do things you don't know are possible like presenting people with disturbing material that you are unsure will work. People always ask us, "What are you defying?" We've been trying to answer that for 10 years. We defy fear, and the idea that certain things shouldn't be said or should be shown.
3AM: What's the level of shock in DOPE? How much are you ramming down people's throats? What's the overall tone?
CJ: The tone is upbeat, fast, sarcastic satire. As much as possible I try to put people's own words in their mouths. It's like the most high-energy, worst-case scenario of the actual historical events done to really hammer home the underlying point, which is true and actual. We open the play with George Washington writing a letter to Martha, a grand eloquent, patriotic letter, which ends with a P.S. reminder to make sure the Hemp is planted in the coming Spring. From there we jump to the 1870's and the attack on the Opium use of Chinese railroad workers. We proceed chronologically from there covering all aspects of the history of drug hysteria and its relation to the political structure. We end on September 11th with G.W. Bush. Everything we cover is confirmable, but when you act them out in the manner in which we do it becomes totally shocking. It's high theatricality and high satire. When I was writing and revising it, to maintain cohesion in the script, my colleagues told me to always think of Drugs as the hero and the government as the villain. Originally I went deeper into the philosophy of the counterculture and why drugs were "cool" and all that, but now I realized that the true through-line was about the government being full of shit, regardless of what drugs, good or bad, that we are talking about.
3AM: Are you worried about DEA of FBI interference with your play, being accused or investigated for "Un-American" activity stuff like the artist in Houston who was harassed by the FBI because her painting had an unflattering portrayal of GW. Bush?
CJ: I have to speak for myself and say "worried"…no. We have all discussed that possibility, and everyone understands it exists, but I think it's much more likely than they do. They think I'm paranoid. I can't say what we would do until it actually happened. I would say in my opinion and inclination would be to keep going regardless. If they tried to shut the show down, we'd do it elsewhere inn true guerilla fashion. If they want to come hassle us, let them come hassle us. They could try to pull some IRS shit, but we have no money and we're not-for-profit.
3AM: But what about this epidemic of being labeled unpatriotic at best, and at worst in support of terrorism if you don't hold the Bush Administration party line?
CJ: I think that would be the best thing that could happen to us, regardless of their spin on it, because one of the realities of theater in particular is that it is so hard to market new work because of the costs involved that this kind of publicity would bring so much more attention to the show, and the kind of people who go to the theater are much the kind of people who like to see this kind of work, work with a challenge behind it. I guarantee you millions more people flocked to see The Last Temptation of Christ after the religious fervor happened than beforehand. So, in a sick way, part of me hopes they show up and try to shut us down. They would be giving us the kind of legitimacy we need. The best thing the government could do is nothing. That way the only exposure we'd get is the kind that every off-Loop show gets…minimal.