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Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Writer's Intuition



A Writer’s Intuition: Toni Ann Johnson Interview

by Evan Jackson

Toni Ann Johnson has a storied screenwriting career with credits of Disney made for TV movie Ruby Bridges, Showtime movie Crown Heights, and Lifetime movie Courage To Love. Toni admits to me venturing into becoming a first time novelist was a bold move for her but she had been doing that for most of her career. Hailing from Monroe, New York Toni uses her upbringing and travels around the world as sources for her written work. The characters in her debut novel Remedy For a Broken Angel are masterfully layered. She has a way of making them three dimensional, bringing them to life just as she has done for so many years when it comes to her screenplays. As an accomplished essayist, screenwriter, and playwright she now adds author to those hallowed talents. Earning a 2015 NAACP Image Awards nomination for her debut novel and winning the Beverly Hills Book award for Multicultural Fiction she’s proven all those who’ve doubted her wrong. At the end of the day writer’s write in any format. Hopefully Toni inspires you to entrust your intuition when it comes to creating giving you the ability to create something just as impactful.    

When did you discover your love for writing?
As a little girl I wanted to write stories, but I didn’t have anything that interesting to say, so I didn’t finish them. I was taking acting lessons as young as age 12 and we were executing other people’s plays and stories. As I continued acting and grew into my teens, I wanted to be the person who created those things. I liked other people’s stories, but I wanted to say stuff that related to my own life. As I got older I began thinking about what kind of plays I could create and I wrote some. They weren’t very good at first, but that’s where my love for it started; it grew out of acting, which, as I see it, is storytelling as well.

Where does your imagination take you when you decide to embark on a new project: whether it be a play, script or a book?
I think that depends on what I’m writing. Right now I’m writing short stories based on my life growing up as a person of color in a predominantly white town. But because some of that stuff happened so long ago I’ve had to fictionalize things. My imagination will take me back to what I think I recall from the actual events. I’ll try to visualize the places where things in the story are happening—the details. It’s hard to know where the imagination takes over from what I can recall from memory. It’s a vacillation between memory and imagination.

In other instances, my imagination may take me somewhere unexpected, somewhere I haven’t been myself, especially when I’m writing about fictional characters. In Remedy For a Broken Angel, the characters are fictional (with elements of real people—so there’s a bit of memory), but they’re not real people, so when I’m writing about them and their trajectories, I have to use my imagination. I act them out in my head, as I would if I were playing them onstage. I do the same thing when writing a script. I “play” the roles myself in my imagination.

Growing up you traveled a lot to different countries with your family. Seeing the world at such a young age, what impact do you think that had on your writing?
I think it had an impact on me as a human being in not feeling so different or better than any kind of person. I traveled to several third world countries, while still under the age of 10. I saw beggars, ambassadors, people who were of high social standing and people who weren’t. I think it made me feel a sense of humanity— of connection—I might not have acquired had I not traveled. I grew up in a conservative area and some people I grew up with were prejudiced in different ways. They felt that people who were different: gay, black, Asian, or whatever were somehow not as good as them. They were sort of protective of their own status and stature in the world. Having traveled I didn’t have that. For me, I was more curious than judgmental. If I were to see a beggar I wouldn’t think “Ew, a beggar,” I would think why are they like that, and I would look at how other people were responding. I’d ask myself questions and sometimes I’d ask my parents who couldn’t always give me an answer. I developed more of a curiosity, then a disdain when I traveled. And that has had an impact on my writing. For example, when I write about villains, or so-called bad people I don’t leave it at that. I try to look a bit deeper at those people and understand how their life experience has led them to be the way they are.

You’ve studied under Stella Adler. What gems of wisdom did you get from her and others that you’ve implemented in your own writing?
Stella Adler taught a class called script interpretation and she was teaching us modern playwrights—Ibsen, Strindberg, O’Neil, and Shaw. She showed us how what was going on culturally, socially, and politically influenced those playwrights and their work. That has had some influence on my work, in terms of context, and of being conscious of the ideas embedded in what I’m writing.
One of the simple technical things she taught was that if you have an idea you want your reader or audience to come away with you have to find a way to mention it at least three times. Hopefully a slightly different way each time, so it doesn’t feel redundant, but you have to layer the idea in.

In your screenwriting career you tend to be drawn to true stories with writing the scripts for Ruby Bridges (1998), Crown Heights (2004), and The Courage To Love (2000). What made you want to adapt these real life events to the TV screen?
 I took those jobs first and foremost because they were going to pay me to write them, but what drew me to each project was different. What drew me to the Ruby Bridges story was an emotional connection to her experience. She was alone in the classroom, she integrated a school, and she experienced racism. I didn’t have her precise experience, but I was one of the only black kids in my school growing up and I experienced racism. So I understood that. Seeing how mean adults were to her when she was just a child—I identified with that as well, because there were adults who were unkind in my town, and who called me the N word when I was a little girl. I remember how that felt, so there was no way I was going to turn down the opportunity to write that movie.

When it came to Crown Heights I was interested in the clash of cultures. The Hasidic Jewish community had a strong culture, obviously, but what I found when I was researching, is that some of the boys (black and Jewish) didn’t understand that the black kids had a culture, too. Some of the community leaders working with the both groups after the riots taught them about Hasidic culture and African-American and Caribbean-American culture, too, which created more of an understanding and respect between the groups. I found it interesting that these two young men (based on real people) in this story learned about each other via their respective cultures.

The Courage To Love was based on a mid-19th century free woman of color in New Orleans. I had done a lot of research on New Orleans for Ruby Bridges and so I found it interesting that this also took place in the historic city. I learned what slavery in New Orleans was like and how it was different from plantation slavery in other parts of Louisiana. Unfortunately the network made the slavery in the movie look like plantation slavery. New Orleans had urban slavery where slaves didn’t always live with the people that owned them, and it was these slaves that Henriette Delille, the subject of the film (who became a nun), was ministering to. Many of these slaves lived in boarding houses. Free people of color owned a lot of these boarding houses. In New Orleans, some slaves were allowed to work for other people (for pay) on their day off, to save money to buy their freedom, or to buy other family members’ freedom. The free people of color in New Orleans at that time were to some degree empowered, and I found that fascinating because I’d never learned that in school. Where I went to school they didn’t teach me about black people or people of color who were empowered during slavery. The free people of color, or Creoles of color, were a separate class. They had their own schools, their own businesses, and in many ways they were thriving. They weren’t equivalent to the white class, but nor were they the slave class. That was astonishing to me. They were middle class and some of them owned slaves themselves. I didn’t know before doing research that people of color owned slaves. I thought it was bizarre. What drew me into that project was curiosity. It was amazing to me that this stuff that happened in our country and that the history isn’t as widely known as the other elements of slavery. In high school all I learned about slavery was from watching Roots and reading a couple of chapters in a history book. I didn’t learn about the stratification of people of color, so it was interesting to discover.

 In the play Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public you not only were the playwright, but also an actor in the play. How did you balance that?
I’m sure I drove my directors crazy, because I had a sense of how to do the play since I wrote it. Sometimes when they’d direct me and I didn’t agree, I wouldn’t do what they asked. I figured it was my play ‘what do you know?’ Sometimes my choices were better, and sometimes they weren’t. When I figured out that their ideas were better and when their perspective enhanced what I was trying to do, I’d listen. Sometimes I would change my own lines. One thing that really bothered me was when other actors would change their lines or forget the lines. That drove me crazy.

From your short stories like Claiming Tobias to your some of your screenplays, one of the main themes is identity; in particular racial identity.  What are some revelations that you’ve had in your own life that make you reflect on your own racial identity?
When I was 18 my mother told me she was adopted and her biological father had been white, which I never knew. I grew up not knowing that my mother’s parents, who were both black, were her adoptive parents. So my identity was based on my mother being black, not biracial. My mother had no cultural connection to being half white since she wasn’t raised with her father.
Growing up, people would always assume I was biracial. I thought: no I’m not. My father was very light skinned, too, but as I understood it, both his parents were black. As it turns out, though, my grandmother, who was Bermudian, had a white father. He was English. She was very fair skinned, and I look exactly like her. But my identity was always black, not biracial, because though I had these white ancestors, they weren’t around and I didn’t know about them.

When I was growing up and people were telling me I looked biracial my mother would tell me: “So what if you do? In the world we live in you’re black and that’s all you need to know.” Then when I found out she was biracial it started to make sense: Oh, this is why I’m so light and my hair is curly-kinky but not as kinky as some.

Another thing that made me reflect on my racial identity is that I did a DNA test a couple of years ago and found that I’m genetically less black than white. I have a higher percentage of European DNA and a large percentage of Ashkenazi, which is eastern European Jew. My mother told me her biological father was a Russian Jew, but until I saw it in my own DNA I didn’t feel it pertained to me. I grew up being called the N word and at the time, my mother was right--even if you were biracial, that was still black. This was before you could identify yourself as multiracial, legally.
Also, not growing up in an African-American community I wasn’t around black people that much. When I did hang out with one of my black cousins in her community, she was critical: you act like a white girl, you sound like a white girl, you dance like a white girl... But I wasn’t white. White people didn’t embrace me as one of them. I didn’t fit in either place and I still don’t. But I identify as African-American, and now that I’m an adult I don’t mind not fitting a particular image of blackness, because “black” is not a monolith, and it’s ok to be an individual.

How did it feel to be recognized for your debut novel Remedy For a Broken Angel at the 2015 NAACP Image Awards with a nomination and winning the Beverly Hills Book Award for Multicultural Fiction?
That was great. All of that acknowledgment, as well as the other awards I’ve been nominated for, including the International Latino Book Award, feels good because I hadn’t written a novel before. I have some great writer friends who were supportive, but there were also people who weren’t supportive. I was told it wasn’t commercial enough, it wasn’t big enough, it wasn’t this enough, it wasn’t that enough. I was told it didn’t work. But I didn’t believe that. I submitted it to the NAACP Image Awards myself and paid the submission fee, because I believed in it. I was pleased and grateful to be nominated. The book was up there with others published by large presses (which mine wasn’t), and it was fun. It was exciting going to the awards show. I appreciate the Beverly Hills Book Award too, and for it to win in the multicultural fiction category was gratifying, because that’s what it is. I live in a world with all kinds of people, not just black, or white, or any one group. Mainstream fiction often seems to segregate novels. It’s easier to market a book if it neatly fits into one culture. But the multicultural experience is more familiar to me, and people like me read books, too.

What is the boldest thing you’ve done yet?
The first thing that comes to mind was leaving the security of my family and home where I was living and going to school in New York. I took a risk and moved to Los Angeles in 1992 with no money, no job, just a duffle bag with my stuff. I bounced around staying with friends for a while.
I had no family in LA and I didn’t have a plan to fall back on if things didn’t work out. I didn’t know how I was going to make it and my parents didn’t expect me to succeed. My father was done with me, because he’d helped me financially for a few years after college, but I hadn’t been successful enough to survive on my own completely. He let me know that he didn’t think anything much would materialize for me and he wasn’t going to help me anymore.

 The survival job I got through a friend was a receptionist gig at a company where I made $7.50 an hour. I was driving a car that was literally falling apart. I had this play, Gramercy Park, and I knew it was good enough to lead to something, but I didn’t know what. Within a couple of years I signed with a major literary agent and I went from working at that receptionist job to writing a movie for Disney, going from $7.50 an hour to earning $85,000 for my first writing assignment, so it was a big jump.
I guess it was also bold, ten years later, setting aside my screenwriting career to write my novel. I did have another big job after that, but my screenwriting career suffered. I wasn’t in love with what was being offered to me as a screenwriter at the time. I had done a few things that I liked very much, but I was executing other people’s ideas more than my own, and in the process losing my own voice. I was creating things that weren’t leading to a legacy that felt authentic to me. So I stepped away from that.
I did make a modest attempt to get other jobs, but I didn’t stay in that world and maximize what I might have accomplished.

I think many people would look at the choice I made and say that it was a mistake. But for me it wasn’t, because I’ve been able to write stories that are meaningful to me. I’m not a writer just for the goal of having a successful career and making a lot of money. Yes, I want and welcome success, but I have a limited amount of time in my life, and I don’t want to spend all of it writing other people’s ideas. I have my own. I want the chance to write things that matter to me. I hope they matter to other people, because I am writing to communicate to others, but there’s no guarantee of that and I’m happy to write anyway. It’s a privilege to be able to write and publish stories that no one else would or could write in the same way. I’m not interested in being like anyone else, or in writing like anyone else. Yes, I want to continue being published and produced and yes, I want to be able to pay my bills and enjoy my life, but I’ve had the experience of people invalidating my perspective and experience and that’s not the way I want to spend the bulk of my creative life.

What are your future plans?
My immediate plan is to finish my short story collection, which is taking way longer than I’d like, because I’m still promoting the novel and doing so is a lovely distraction. After that, I’ll write the next thing and I’m not sure what that is, but I have a lot of material in various stages of development. I’m also considering creating some kind of performance piece with the short stories. Some of them lend themselves to performance and I enjoy that as much as creating them.

Where can people reach you?
People can email me at my website, www.toniannjohnson.com, or via Linkedin, or find me on twitter @toniannjohnson.
 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Little Miss Sunshine



Little Miss Sunshine: LaPrecious Brewer Interview

by Evan Jackson



There were two intangible qualities that I noticed about LaPrecious Brewer that revealed her character. First, her humility was apparent when she recanted stories of her winning Miss Black Kentucky 2014 feeling blessed and thankful for everyone who helped her to get to that point. Second, her quiet strength she exhibited when she tells me the trials and tribulations in her life. She’s determined to use her platform of pageants to spread her message about Domestic Violence. Currently LaPrecious goes to Louisville University, where majoring in communications and Pan-African Studies help her grow into the leader she is today as well as a motivational speaker. Along with being humble LaPrecious seems shy, but she transforms into a ray of sunshine when she discusses her passions and why she likes to have a positive impact on young women. Find out more about her journey here and recognize why your light might be brighter just by knowing her story.

What is the story behind you winning the Miss Black Kentucky in 2014?
I decided to enter Miss Black Kentucky 2014 because at that time Kentucky didn’t have a preliminary pageant, which is kind of funny because now I’m the new director of the Kentucky pageant. I was doing an internship with my cousin who owns a big PR company here called VIPP communications. One of her clients is former basketball player Derek Anderson. We he had to do one of his camps and one of his friends, who is now his fiancĂ©e Ashley Miller, said I would be great to do pageants. She said I have a real passion for others, that I spoke well, and she encouraged me to do it. At the time I was thinking of doing it. At first I thought it wasn’t for me, I didn’t see myself as a pageant girl, and I would go there and embarrass myself. However she said she would coach me and stick with me through the entire process. At that time the pageant was based on your GPA, letters of recommendation, your pageant resume, talking about your community service, the extracurricular activities and organizations you were involved in on campus. When I did that, I went forward and onto D.C. to the Miss Black USA pageant and did my best. I didn’t get the national title however I did get The Founder’s Award.

When I won the Miss Black Kentucky pageant I felt that was my chance to make a difference. I was very proud of myself. Then it sunk in, that was my very first pageant so I was scared. I had begun to call on different friends and those who I knew in Kentucky that were pageant girls all their lives to get mentorship. 

What is your main motivation when it came to entering pageants?
My motivation behind entering pageants was the platform it provided. When you’re crowned, you’re crowned a title, so you’re able to share your ideas and share your passions with other people. You have some type of influence and that was the main thing that kept me doing it. I was able to do community service and I was able to speak to younger girls or women who have been abused. It’s not the glitz and glam, all the events I’ve been to, the celebrities I’ve met, or the different entertainment activities I had to do.  It’s pretty much the community service that motivates me. My heart is big and I love to help others.

Why is it important to use your platform to spread your personal message, especially when it comes to awareness of Domestic Violence?
It is very important because Domestic Violence is very common, but we don’t like to talk about it especially in the Black community. You saw it a lot with the Ray Rice situation that came out last year. You had a lot of mixed feelings about the situation, but at the end of the day the undertone was it was the victim’s fault. I really don’t think that’s fair. A lot of people were asking why didn’t she leave, but they really don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, what goes on in the mind of the victim, or the cycle of Domestic Violence that keeps a person there. It could be a lot of different things; mentally, emotionally, or they might be broken financially where they are not able to escape the situation. I feel like it was very important for me to tell my story. I want to spread the message of it’s not ok and it’s not your fault. I want to reach a young crowd, college age, because it happens there too or it starts there. A lot of situations where there are girls my age who think ‘He really loves me, his jealously shows that he really wants me’ but they should know that’s not healthy. If we come together and talk openly about this we can bring a stop to it. Just like the campaign says if you know more then they’ll be no more.

How has your education at Louisville being a double major in Communications and Pan-African Studies help you be where you’re at today?
In Communications I believe it has helped me articulate my message in a better way. It’s helped me break out of my shell a lot more and then with Pan-African Studies it has helped me see the world in a different way. My Theater Arts minor that’s helped me think differently and go outside my box, a little too much. At nationals for Miss Black USA I should have known this but everyone’s talent was a monologue or a dance pertaining to the African American women but I came out on the stage to Lady Gaga’s “Applause”. It was a very dramatic routine, but I know the audience was wondering what was going on.

How did you come to be the Miss Black Kentucky USA Director?
I came to be the director after winning the Founder’s Award. The Founder’s Award is like the second best award at the Miss Black USA pageant. It’s for the queen that shows the most leadership and does the most when it comes to community service. The Founders awards included a trip to Paris, a trip to Dubai, and a $1,000 scholarship. I’m really excited about that. After I won, I thought how am I going to maximize my award. Apart of the award is you get to be mentored by the founder of the Miss Black USA pageant. I was talking to her every other week. She motivates you and helps you get the connections that you need. I came to her with the idea of purchasing the franchise of the Miss Black Kentucky pageant. I expressed to her that I like pageants, you get to meet people, but my passion is not about being in the spotlight. My passion is about helping others to get where they want to be. She talked to me about the ins and outs of it to make sure I wasn’t just thrown into this and we finally made the decision that I would take over the franchise. I’m hoping and praying that it turns out the way that I want it to, so far we have twenty three girls and get emails every day. With Miss Black USA it’s been a blessing because it has allowed me to come out of my shell and been a way for me to meet the people that I need to meet. And like I said it’s been a way to spread my message through my platform. There are a lot of great benefits as well, with it being a huge sisterhood. Some of my sister queens I still talk to every day. If you are going ahead and win the national title you go on to do other great things.

Where do you think you get that motivational spirit from?
It comes from just the women I’ve grown to admire. I want to make an impact on the lives of other girls as much as they’ve made an impact on mine. I collect wisdom from everyone and I also read books. I pay attention to everything. I’m always looking for ways to grow and expand. Whatever I take in I want to give out to others.

One of your recent blog posts is titled “Be Bold and Unwavering”. What is the boldest thing you’ve done yet?
The boldest thing that I’ve done yet is taking on the Miss Black Kentucky franchise alone. I went into the pageants with two co-directors however they had businesses of their own they had to attend to. Despite going it alone I wasn’t going to give up, that’s something I’ll never do. I’m going to keep at it until I get it right. There are some days I don’t get to sleep until four or five in the morning. I think that’s the boldest move I’ve done, just representing a franchise alone just stepping out having to contact those sponsors for scholarships, having to go to these different companies, and contacting vendors. It’s the boldest thing I’ve done yet but the most rewarding.

In the same blog post you allude to the fact you can’t let others ‘dim your light’. When are the moments where your light shines the brightest?
In the midst of all of this I’m a single mother and I would have to say my light shines the brightest every time my daughter looks at me and she’ll say ‘I’m very proud of you’. It kind of sometimes makes me want to cry.  And she’s young, so I can’t believe that she understands how hard I work to get to where I want to go. At the same time that’s my number one mentee. So I go around and I speak to other girls, but at the end of the day she’s the number one person I want to influence.  So when she expresses to me the things that I do and how it impacts her I shine constantly.

Tell us more about your upcoming book and your upcoming speaking tour?
The speaking tour will begin in the fall at the same time my book comes out. The book is the full story of my Domestic Violence situation. It’s a motivational book for other girls that have gone through different type of abuse as well: whether it is emotional abuse, physical abuse, or verbal abuse. It’s a story on how you can regain your kingdom and become a queen again. It’s called I Reign. The story comes from the fact I left my ex-fiancĂ© on Valentine’s Day of 2014. It took me all the way up until this past Valentine’s Day of this year to feel whole again. I’ll always celebrate Valentine’s Day as the day I gained my freedom. I want other girls to have that year of realizing who they are, gain their freedom, and to become a queen again. The book will come in September and the speaking tour is with Outrageous. That is the non-profit I did the documentary with about Domestic Violence and it’s on their website outrageous.org.    

What has been one of your most memorable moments when it came to your public speaking?
The speaking events I love the most are the ones that cater to young women however they’re a tough audience. So you’re up here trying to motivate them, tell their story, get them to talk, but they’re just staring at you. Like ‘Who is this girl?’. This past event that I had in March in Illinois I was speaking to a large group of girls. There were over a 150 girls and they all were seventh, eighth graders, and some in high school. Even though I had jeans and a t-shirt I still had on heels and they felt like I wasn’t a part of them. It was hard trying to break through them or break the ice before I spoke. The different activities and workshop sessions, they really didn’t open up to me; however when I went up on stage to speak at that time my feet were hurting. So I took my shoes off and threw them down on the stage. Then I sat down and opened all the way up. As soon as I did that then they saw that it’s not a facade. She is who she is and this is someone I want to listen to. A lot of the girls ended up crying, girls raised their hands and told their stories, and girls started telling their stories amongst each other at the table. That was a great moment for me. I even had some of the girls that just got up on stage and hugged me. That was really nice.

What are your future aspirations?
Oh lord, take over the world. As of right now the things in my immediate future  what I’ll is continue to do. I have my book coming out and my upcoming speaking tour in the fall which I’m focusing on now.

Where can people reach you at?
You can reach me at www.LaPrecious.com or any of my social media sites
 Facebook: LaPrecious Brewer
 Twitter/Instagram: IamLaPreciousB

I speak to pretty much everyone and I’m friendly. When I do have down time I like to respond to a majority of my messages. I’m an open book, so if you ever need any advice, someone to talk to, or connect with I’m there.

 

Feel Young, Be Bold, Live Regal

Feel Young, Be Bold, Live Regal