THE JOHNSONS. By Amina Henry. Directed by Shira-Lee Shalit. JACK, Brooklyn, New York. 23 October 2019.
The play was performed in the JACK theater, a small venue with a sparsely decorated set. Actors walked through the audience and one character, Bill, took an observational role in the front row: the performance felt immersive and personal. This effect was only added to by the scant set design, as the stage appeared a seamless part of the entire room. This was no contained drama—the audience is transported to and involved in the Johnsons’ strange story.
Bill, the adolescent nihilist narrator, expressed fascination with the Johnsons’ story, but the real emotion came from the family, who struggle to continue living a life with economic stress and familial tensions. In this sense, the play is a tragedy.
Characters move in and out of the space in front of the Johnsons house, suggesting the world not shown in the set: the whale-less wide ocean the Johnsons continually gazed at, the city of opportunity that Michael left behind. We see only the Johnson’s front because they lack mobility–they always return to the house and are trapped there, even the enterprising Michael. The set slowly disintegrates, the curtains taken down and the screen door removed, and the Johnsons’ situation becomes more fraught and their family disintegrates in turn. Costumes stayed the same for the most part, but Linus’s house became more unkempt, while Hilary continued to lose layers of his clothing. This visual breaking down of the set and costumes matched the emotional state of the family.
At different points in the narrative, nostalgic music played, dated and reminiscent of love and longing: Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” is a sweet song with a dreamy, otherworldly tone. Fisher plays this type of music; Michael shows disgust for it and shut it off. Michael has been disillusioned by reality, as made clear by allusions to her past suicide attempt. The dutiful, desperate love that Michael has for her family is far from the idealized love in the songs.
These choices foster an atmosphere of stress and fragility, culminating in the play’s fiery finale. The audience alternated between laughing at the Johnsons’ outright weirdness and quieting during intense moments, though the two reactions were never very separate. The play maintained a sense of strangeness and almost silliness, even in the tensest situations. While exploring the trapped and wretched feelings of the Johnson family, playwright Amina Henry’s offbeat comedic sensibilities made the story feel more random, just like life itself.