*“A hard d*ck has no conscience. Says it all, don’t it?”
Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. The answer may be revealed in Peter J. Harris’ play, The Johnson Chronicles: Truth & Tall Tales About My Penis, currently playing at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood.
A week ago, at an empty Matrix Theatre, I caught up with Harris and Terrell Tilford, the star of the play, as they were waxing lyrical about the show and about their friendship. The two of them together are hilarious. Their priceless banter and quick repartee is that of two old friends who have a loving, familiar and respectful acquaintance.
Tilford, casually dressed in a striped shirt and shorts, is straddling a bench on the stage, while he goes over his script. A bespectacled Harris, donned in a green flak jacket, black t-shirt, jeans and sandals, is pacing back and forth with a confident energy.
They are literally on the same page when it comes to presenting an updated version of Harris’s classic tome. At one time Tilford directed Harris in the Johnson Chronicles. Now it’s Harris’s turn to reciprocate. For Harris there was only one man who could bring the strength, sensibilities and skills to this one-man show and that’s Tilford. Previous incarnations of the show had several males presenting the material as a reading. This time it’s being presented as a solo production.
In the Johnson Chronicles, Tilford plays My Man, a character who speaks on the Truth and Tall Tales about the pleasure and pain of living with Johnson, the all-purpose African American euphemism for his penis.
Nothing is held back in this show. Harris has constructed a heady presentation that “confronts My Man’s personal, political and mythological Johnson in bold, funny, sensual, historical vignettes, intellectual dozens, vows, and affirmations about first sex, size, fatherhood, intimacy and intimate violence, vasectomy, and the impact of racism on his humanity and sexuality.”
The Johnson Chronicles has been described as a poetic, conversational, ‘body memoir’ about the black penis.
Harris says he got his inspiration for the show after a friend invited him to see Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.
Please note: this show is FOR GROWN FOLKS ONLY!
Following is a brief discussion I had with both Harris (PJH) and Tilford (TT).
DD: Men are so connected to their penises. What is it about the penis?
PJH: It’s conditioning. We get slighted. Conditioning at its worse reduces us to our penises. You are seen as that thing that can have someone make money for themselves. Johnson and the reproduction system is what made money in tandem with the women’s reproductive system. It’s also about our own internal cultural dynamics. If we’re not careful we will pass on the worse of things. There is nothing funnier than a big black Johnson joke. It’s like a “Yo mama joke,” ya know? This is about every man being named My Man. If you hit the right tones that guy can symbolize a number of other men. I’m in my 60s now. I should be wiser now. I am wiser now. To go through divorce, custody battles and heartbreak, you get seasoned. For me, if you are surrounded by the community of men. If you get the right connection with the right dudes, the Johnson just becomes a part of your body, except when it grows in power with a particular person who is your partner.
DD: What is it that a woman could NEVER understand about the penis?
PJH: I don’t know. There is nothing mysterious about it. If you are a heterosexual – you want his dick to work. Taking care of my body is a lifelong thing to do. Isolating my Johnson is not going to keep me alive. I don’t’ like to mystify it. We have to keep generating work like The Johnson Chronicles. I’m a distinctive writer. My idea is to contribute to a body of work. I’m striving for a simple humanity. History eliminated our humanity.
DD: How has the show evolved?
PJH: I cut out some chronicles that were in the earlier readings. I refined some of the other chronicles. We have found a new core to it. There is something about the solo form that demands that you don’t kill your actor – because we have a show on paper that was easily 90 minutes or more. When you’re investing one person in the show, you want to make sure that person is a worker. I work harder to edit myself – harder than anyone else could. That’s how it’s changed in the most fundamental way. I’ve given Terrell more room to absorb the pieces.
DD: Why did you choose to direct?
PJH: I’m directing this to get some basics in place. The collaboration and the fearlessness to collaborate has kept us on the balls of our feet.
DD: Terrell, at one point you directed this show, now you’re starring in the show. Talk about each experience and what each does for you?
TT: Having been in the biz a long time, as you get older you know more things, it gets to a point when you know you have a stronger point of view, which is why I wanted to direct the previous version. This has been a collaborative process in terms of him (Harris) being open to us being open and candid with each other the entire time. He likes creative conflict. It’s out of that conflict that has gotten us to where we are today. We are in a good opening position.
DD: Tell me about the first time you heard about and saw this show?
TT: I heard about it when he did some excerpts. It was a different voice. Upon hearing the first audio of it, you go, “Shit, this guy is on a different trip.” I thought he was crazy. Listen to what’s being said. There is a vibration within the tone of the work that it was honest and sincere. If we allow ourselves to get to that point then we’ll find the dichotomy in it. And the stuff we relate to and that which has no connection to us. But that wasn’t the experience. The first reading I thought he was on to something.
DD: Why did you want to do this show?
TT: I didn’t think I was interesting enough to do the show. I didn’t think I had the right temperament to be in the show. I didn’t want to do it at all. I only wanted to be the director. I didn’t want it to be about me. I didn’t want Peter to do it either because writers have a particular connection to their work that they’re not open to in terms of the criticism while they are in the piece. But, this brother was humble. We fought. Creative tension is good when it’s about the work. Our egos was never involved in the work.
DD: What are some truths and some tall tales about the penis?
TT: I don’t know where and how to delve into my own truths. The voice within this in demystifying what the black penis is all about. The myth is that we are Mandingo slinging apes that have no connection to our humanity or any sensitivity. That we can’t have a logical or sensible conversation with our partners and that we are incapable of having sit down with each other and have a grown ass conversation. It’s about saying, I’m not in the mood today. I’m just not. I’m stressed out. I’m thinking about bills. Black men are dying at the hands of cops. Where and how can I celebrate life or engage in this in the midst of that.” It takes two grown ass people to have that discussion. It’s introspection of yourself.
DD: I saw a reading of this show a while back. There were several men. This is a single male. It’s a solo show. What impact does one guy bring to the show? Is it more impactful.
PJH: The impetus for this run of the Johnson Chronicles is to bring in an actor I trust. He (Terrell) says I’m ready to go back. If we’re going to do it, I don’t want to stop. It’s a lot of work. Joe Stern the owner of the Matrix Theatre was very supportive.
DD: But, why solo?
PJH: The first reason to go solo was budgetary. For this run and given the work we’ve done on the script. This is a seamless version. It seems natural. I can’t imagine an ensemble now. It’s written by the prospective of one black heterosexual male.
DD: Terrell, he chose you.
TT: I’m humbled. This is not a vanity project. I love what I do. I love honoring the work. The rest of it is the universe. It’s going to do what it’s going to do. I don’t have control over it. When I get up on the stage, that’s all its about. It’s about leaving it on the dance floor.
DD: Peter, explain your process of bringing this show to life.
PJH: If I could characterize it, it would be quietness. Trying to listen. Listening to what I’m actually saying and trying to find the rhythm and the intonation. It’s about bringing the resonance of the depth of the circumstances and then trying to let it go and repeat. I’m looking for some version of that. There is no one formula. Every piece of art requires something different.
DD: Terrell, you and Peter have been inhaling this show for a while.
TT: For this particular piece, Peter and I have been at it longer than a normal process. We started four months ago. We were trying to get ready to go to Washington, D.C. I still wasn’t tapped into the understanding. I didn’t understand the piece at that time, not what I think I needed to understand for the piece. When we got into the regular process here, I asked if Peter and I could just meet at my house and just talk and listen, and find the heartbeat and the through line. I feel like we’ve weaved together a symphony. It’s a beautiful piece of music.
DD: What does theater do for you?
TT: Television is my mortgage. Film is happenstance and theater is my bloodline. Theater is my greatest gift to myself. It’s because of the immediacy of the connection. I wish the stage was as narrow as a tightrope. It’s the highest vibration.
DD: Peter, why is Terrell the right person for this show?
PJH: That’s the irony to me. I met Terrell at World Stage in the 90s before he went to grad school. He was an around the way dude. I know how serious he was. I remember him pulling me aside and saying, “I m going to grad school to get my MFA.” I knew he would have the chops. I’m a fan. I saw him in Take Me Out and Stick Fly. I also saw his Shakespeare stuff. I like working with people who are serious. He and his wife, Victoria [Platt], are good people. What I do know is that he “gets” a lot of stuff. I knew he would work hard. I wanted someone who took seriously that they are professional actors. I’m not an actor. I know the work he has put in for his craft. He has a great presence as a dude. He’s not just handsome – he has a presence. That’s the dude I saw stalking a stage. He was always my first choice. I saw him chewing it up and chanting it up. That’s it in a nutshell. I haven’t been disappointed. I’m about the culture. I’m about the work. He stands for integrity. This guy is a contemporary curator of African American art. This dude loves this culture. We are in association. We talk about everything. I’m quick to think, “What do you think?” Lets set the highest standards we can set.
The Johnson Chronicles: Truth & Tall Tales About My Penis stars Terrell Tilford and is written and directed by Peter J. Harris. Thomas A. Gordon Ph.D/TAGA Consulving is the associate producer. Inspiration House PopsnAde/Restorative Notions, in association with YardBird Media.
The Johnson Chronicles: Truth & Tall Tales About My Penis, The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90046, 8 p.m., Fri., Sat., Mon. through Aug. 7; tickets @:https://johnsonchronicles.eventbrite.com