By Loy Webb
Dr. Charles Johnson is more than an author. He is a literary icon. His historical novel “Middle Passage,” about the final voyage of an illegal American slave ship, has been ingrained into this country’s literary DNA. “Middle Passage” has gone on to become a “cultural artifact,” according to Johnson who in 1990 became the second African-American man to receive the National Book Award for Fiction.
When I call Dr. Johnson for our interview, I hear a small boy’s voice in the background. “Excuse me that’s my grandson. He’s playing around with my PC.” He proceeds to gently but sternly tell the four-year-old to take a breather. The young boy obliges for about ten seconds (as young boys do), then he’s on to whatever else in his grandfather’s study captures his attention.
Turns out even MacArthur Fellows have grandpa duty.
I speak with Dr. Johnson about his Evanston origins and his mother who planted the seeds of what would become a lush literary garden. “My mother wanted to be a teacher but she couldn’t because she had asthma and you had to pass a swimming test in the 1940s. So she couldn’t be a teacher in the schools but she could certainly be a teacher for me.” She filled their home with books, some of which were cast-offs from sorority girls at Northwestern University where his mother sometimes worked as a cleaning lady.
That love of books didn’t officially turn into a writing career until 1970, when he began working on what he calls “apprentice novels,” which he would quickly churn out in ten-week spans to teach himself the craft of writing. Of those six apprentice novels, the second was a draft of “Middle Passage.” It was inspired by the infamous cross-section of a slave-ship portrait, which shows a heart-wrenching diagram of how captured Africans were packed into sea vessels and transported across the Atlantic. “It burned itself into the emotion of my mind. And I said ‘I’m going to have to address this in a story.’”
His research began in 1970 and the first draft of the novel was completed in 1971. However, still trying to gain the literary skills he needed to adequately tell the story, he put it aside until 1983. After becoming immersed in the literature of the sea (“…all of Melville, nautical dictionaries, the Sindbad stories. Not for the story or characters, but for the props. What a ship was like and so forth…”), he wrote 3,000 pages over the course of six years.
That novel is now being adapted for the stage by Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III in a production called “Rutherford’s Travels,” which is set to be produced by Pegasus Theatre Chicago later this year. Artistic director Ilesa Duncan says bringing this story to the stage was a ten-year process. “Long before Pegasus got involved, me and playwright David Barr adapted the book. I’d read the book, immediately fell in love with it and its amazing theatrical potential. I literally saw it unfolding on stage as I read it. I called Dave and told him I wanted to adapt the book to the stage. He laughed and told me he too had the same idea. After getting a draft of the script, we had a few table reads at Chicago Dramatists. From there it was featured as a Saturday Series reading there. We then began looking for producing partners. A year ago, we decided to produce it at Pegasus and last December the Goodman graciously hosted a reading of the play for us.”
Duncan states that she and Barr tried to encompass as much of Dr. Johnson’s sea epic as possible. “The stage adaptation cannot encompass the totality of Dr. Johnson’s novel. However, I think we have a pretty precise telling of Rutherford’s journey and the life-changing events he witnessed and participated in. Music and movement are being added to connect audiences to the world Dr. Johnson created in the novel.”
During the weekend of April 15, Pegasus will host several events surrounding the play’s development, including an open rehearsal, a fundraiser/reception with Dr. Johnson and a staged reading with accompanying discussion.
“The main purpose of this month’s staged readings is to promote excitement while we continue to hone the script in preparation for Pegasus’ fall world premiere,” says Duncan. “The adaptation is already gaining unsolicited attention all around town as well as nationally. Opportunities to create original stories for modern theater adapted from award-winning literature like ‘Middle Passage’ don’t come around often.”
Dr. Johnson says he’s excited to see what Pegasus has in store with this adaptation. Celebrating the twenty-five year legacy of the “Middle Passage” and his career as a whole, Dr. Johnson says, “I just want my family and predecessors to be proud. I hope that I honored them throughout the course of my life.” And as his grandson playfully talks to him in the background he adds, “I hope my grandson here will do the same.”