Stage producer, playwright
Chairman and chief executive officer of I'm Ready Productions, Je'Caryous Johnson has emerged as a major force in the world of popular African-American theater from his base in Houston, Texas. Producing, directing, and writing stage productions that toured all over the United States, Johnson and business partner Gary Guidry were on track to earn a projected $15 million in revenue from three shows mounted during the year 2007. But Johnson had his eye on even bigger things, with movie, television, and Broadway musical projects in the works. His ultimate goal was nothing less than a shift in the nature of African-American entertainment toward the positive themes his shows promoted. "I'm going to create a movement so great that it can shift the consciousness of a people," he told Eric Harrison of the Houston Chronicle. And no one who knew Johnson well was likely to underestimate him. "He just does not know the word ‘impossible,’" his college instructor Sidney Berger recalled to Harrison.
Je'Caryous Johnson was born May 26, 1977, in Houston, Texas. Johnson's mother was single and 15 years old at the time, but his father remained involved in his life as a source of help he could count on if needed. Johnson grew up in northwest Houston's Studewood neighborhood. "I can say that we were poor, but as a kid you kind of don't know it," he told Troy Schulze of the Houston Press. "You make do with what you have. I couldn't have a moped, but I'd certainly take a bike and put a can on the back of it, so it sounded like a moped."
Johnson's imagination revealed itself in his gift for performing, displayed while he was still in elementary school at Houston's James D. Burrus Magnet School for Fine Arts. He returned to the stage in high school, and his choice of theater as a career was cemented in 1996 when his play Harlem Renaissance won a nationwide contest in playwriting that was part of the National History Day Contest held at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The following year, Johnson performed for President Bill Clinton at the White House. After taking classes at Prairie View A&M University, Johnson enrolled at the University of Houston, where he majored in theater and fine arts.
At Houston, Johnson received a state-of-the-art education as nationally known playwrights and actors came to the prestigious program to teach classes. He was a star student who had the lead role in the William Hanley play Slow Dance on the Killing Ground while he was still an undergraduate. Outside of school he also encountered a different kind of stage production that, he told Schulze, "didn't really even have a plot. It just went off on these things, and at the end of the day everybody kind of found God and that was the end of it."
What Johnson had discovered was the African-American gospel musical, a homegrown inspirational form that evolved from the comic stage shows of the so-called chitlin' circuit. As he observed the direct emotional appeal and the uninhibited audience of the gospel musical, Johnson realized he was seeing something new, completely different from the classical dramas and experimental plays he was involved with at the university. The experience, he told Schulze, sparked "an internal battle…between my education and what I was viewing. They seemed to be in direct conflict with each other."
Armed with positive reviews of his student work, Johnson headed for Hollywood—and bombed. "I thought I was the king of acting," he told Harrison. "You couldn't tell me anything. I may have been the king in Houston, but the only crown I had in Los Angeles was the Crown Royal bottle I had with me on the balcony as I tried to figure out why I couldn't get roles." After eight months he returned home and started a new theatrical company, I'm Ready Productions, with a slightly older uncle, Gary Guidry. The pair had high hopes for a musical Johnson had written at the University of Houston, Heaven's Child: The Legacy of Emmett Till. The full-length production traced the life of Emmett Till, the African-American teenager whose murder in Leflore County, Mississippi, galvanized the civil rights movement.
Johnson and Guidry maxed out their own credit cards to finance the show and then started in on relatives. Johnson's family believed in his dream, and a wide net of friends and acquaintances invested in the project. Johnson borrowed about $500,000 in total—and in 2000 Heaven's Child closed after just a week and a half on the road and a gross of $60,000. "We failed miserably," Johnson admitted to Margena A. Christian of Jet. "We made every conceivable mistake."
Encouraged by family support and by some positive reviews of the show, Johnson avoided the temptation to give up. He and Guidry bounced back in 2002 when Johnson met African-American romance novelist Michael Baisden and discussed the idea of turning Baisden's novel Men Cry in the Dark into a stage play. No one had ever attempted a similar project in an African-American theatrical world, and the gospel musicals of Diary of a Mad Black Woman creator Tyler Perry were demonstrating that a huge audience existed for live theater in African-American communities.
After veteran actor Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame signed on for the production, Johnson and Guidry were on their way. They built on their success with Men Cry in the Dark by adapting another Baisden novel, The Maintenance Man, in 2003, and continued with adaptations of Eric Jerome Dickey's Friends and Lovers and Cheaters in 2004 and 2005, respectively. By 2006, when they mounted Casino aka Confessions, they were approaching a total gross of $100 million. Performers such as Billy Dee Williams, Kelly Price, Brian McKnight, and Gerald Levert had appeared in their productions, which borrowed the direct emotional appeal and the audience involvement of earlier urban theater but aimed toward more realistic characters and detailed plots. "Don't forsake art for entertainment, and don't forsake entertainment for art, but create a perfect merger and a blend between the two," Johnson explained to Schulze in outlining his attitude toward theater in general.
Johnson became one of the African-American entertainment world's most eligible bachelors, and in 2006 he was the subject of an Essence magazine interview in which he discussed his experiences with "gold diggers"—women who were only after his growing fortune. By 2007 (at which time he was still single) the growth of his career was gaining wide notice. A top-rank screen actress, Vivica A. Fox, worked with Johnson to develop a vehicle called Whatever She Wants in which she starred (as a woman named Vivian Wolf) and alternated between stepping into her character and directly addressing the audience. Fox and Johnson discussed turning Whatever She Wants into a film, and Johnson was branching out into fiction as well; he adapted his play Men, Money & Gold Diggers, which also featured Fox, into a novel and planned to make it into a film as well. Television productions and a Broadway musical based on the film The Five Heartbeats were in the works as well. "Everything is kind of pouring in at the same time from every direction, from Hollywood to New York," Johnson told Harrison.
Yet Johnson was aiming at something more than simple stardom. Though mostly divorced from their roots in the gospel musical, Johnson's productions never lost their positive, moral tone, and he hoped to exert a beneficial influence on young people. "I'm done with romantic plays," he explained to Christian. "Next we need to do something to reel in the kids. Parents don't understand their kids." Whatever future plans Johnson came up with, they would surely be approached fearlessly. "I believe we're at the point where things are about to change for black, white, and indifferent, and we're on the edge," he told Schulze. "Can't wait to jump off the cliff."
At a Glance …
Born on May 26, 1977, in Houston, TX. Education: Attended Prairie View A&M University; University of Houston, fine arts and theater, BA.
Career: Actor and playwright, 1990s; I'm Ready Productions, co-founder, 1998.
Awards: National History Day playwriting competition, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, First place medal, 1996, for Harlem Renaissance; NAACP, Trailblazer award, 2006.
Addresses: Office—I'm Ready Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 10254, Houston, TX 77206. Web—www.imready.com.
Heaven's Child: The Legacy of Emmett Till, 2000.
Men Cry in the Dark, 2002.
The Maintenance Man, 2003.
Friends and Lovers, 2004.
Casino aka Confessions, 2006.
Whatever She Wants, 2006.
Men, Money & Gold Diggers, 2007 (also adapted into novel).
Black Enterprise, August 2005, p. 48.
Essence, June 2006.
Houston Chronicle, May 6, 2007, p. 12.
Houston Press, June 14, 2007.
Jet, May 29, 2006, p. 60.
"About IRP," I'm Ready Productions,www.imready.com (July 15, 2007).
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