By Colleen Goodhue
It’s a little unbelievable how great the theater is in the Upper Valley. Despite being removed from bigger cultural hubs, we get to see new works, classics, local talent, and visiting artists. One of the most anticipated theater events of the year is JAGFest, which happens in White River Junction this weekend, February 7–9. Started four years ago by Jarvis Green, founder of JAG Productions, the festival invites African-American playwrights, actors, and directors to the Upper Valley. Over the course of a week, five playwrights will workshop their new plays and then produce a weekend of live staged readings.
Johnny G. Lloyd, one of the five playwrights selected this year, is a student in Columbia University’s MFA in playwriting program and the Producing Director for InVersion Theatre in Philadelphia. After being in White River Junction for barely 36 hours, Lloyd met up with me for coffee to talk about the week ahead, feeling right at home in the Upper Valley, and the inspiration for his play, The Problem with Magic, Is:.
Colleen Goodhue: So, this week, what happens this week?
Johnny G. Lloyd: Yesterday we had our first rehearsal. We just did a reading and as soon as we're done here, I'm probably going to go do a bunch of edits. And what's really exciting is that because we have five days and all of this time, I can kind of go crazy and I can really change things around.
So Monday through Friday, we’ll each have five hours of rehearsal. And then it's all kind of leading up to Friday, Saturday, Sunday for us when we will present them. But right now, it's really just about developing the thing. It's a good time for me to listen to it a couple of times and then make changes and listen to the changes. And if I wanted to do something completely crazy, I have the space to do that.
CG: I went to JAGFest last year for the first time because I had just started getting interested in theater. I focus on nonfiction, but I took a playwriting class, because I thought, “Why not?”
JL: I took a nonfiction writing class because I was like, “Why not?”
CG: It’s interesting how they inform each other!
JL: It really is like, story is story, at a certain point. There are tools and tricks and ways of organizing things, but also at a certain point, a story is either a story or it's not. And you kind of have to trust that what you're saying is a story instead of not a story.
CG: So, I got tickets to your play [The Problem with Magic, Is:] It looked really interesting. Can you tell me about it?
JL: So the play is about a brother and sister, whose mother has died, and they come from a long line of magicians. They inherit this magic shop. The brother owns the shop because he’s the magician and the sister comes to help. It's in a gentrifying neighborhood, all of their old clients have either died or moved, and so it's really struggling. In order to kind of keep a piece of this neighborhood that they think is important there, they begin doing spells in order to raise their clientele and in doing so, they accidentally bind themselves to the interdimensional time snake, essentially a goddess, god, and so a lot of the play is about exploring both the ramifications of that, but also, you know, death and what it means to live in this neighborhood that you have a connection to, but you also don’t have a connection to.
There's a character who comes in, who is also a person of color, is also black, but is new to the neighborhood. And there's a question of like, are they a gentrifier? What is their purpose in this neighborhood, actually? They work at the store, but also, they do partake in a lot of things that break a neighborhood down.
For me, it kind of came from this place of, like my family's from D.C., I'm from North Carolina, and both my parents were very much like D.C. people, so we would go up when I was growing up for three weeks at a time, like we would kind of get all the vacation time together and go up and stay there. And right after I graduated from college, X number of years ago (laughs), I lived with my grandmother in D.C.
What was really interesting was I went back and lived there basically, right after the H Street corridor had completely changed, we lived in Capitol Hill. All of a sudden, it was like in the span of four years while I was in college, the entire neighborhood had changed. And it was like the strange moment where all of the people that we used to know here are gone. They’re just gone.
My grandmother was basically the last person from when she was younger still left on the block. And they lived in that house since the late 40s, early 50s.
So it was kind of this thing of like, oh, where are these people going? What does it mean for the neighborhood? There's a lot of talk about what this means for the city and now that it's changed so rapidly and so much.
And then I moved to Brooklyn and it was kind of like being on the complete opposite side of it. I moved to Crown Heights and maybe like three months after I moved to Crown Heights, there was this article in The New York Times that was like “Crown Heights is the New Hip Neighborhood. You're going to love it. There's Starbucks now!”
It was weird because I was on a street where a lot of people owned their homes and you can kind of tell that people were choosing to rent, but they were still around a little bit. One street over people didn't own their homes and everyone was gone. It was like a ghost town. And it was this weird moment of like, what am I doing here? Because I might look like I belong, but I don't have any connection to this community. And I don't know how to have a connection to this community. And then I moved to Williamsburg where it was clearer that I was a gentrifier, but in a way that kind of made me feel like, OK, I know what my place is in this community and I know that it's probably bad.
And now we're in Washington Heights and it's again that kind of confusion where I could belong here, but I kind of don't, you know? This isn't actually where I'm from and what is that effect on this community? How am I engaging in a lot of the same negative things that we look at as being symptoms of whiteness coming to neighborhoods? But I'm doing the same things and is that different? It doesn't feel like it's different. Maybe it is, but maybe it's not. And so I was really interested in exploring that as well.
And I like that, having that dynamic play out in a family and also in something that's so fantastical. Because I just love what being in a heightened world can do to allow you to explore some of the more thematic elements of a play. And I was just really excited by that.
CG: You don’t have to find the answer, but it’s more of an exploration.
JL: You don't have to be like, gentrification is bad. Clearly, I know that. I don't have to watch a play to tell me that. I can watch a play that asks me to position myself in this larger, like biosphere, and make me ask, what am I doing here?
After one of the readings that we did, we had this long conversation about homeownership and what it means to be a second- or third-generation homeowner. My grandparents were lucky enough to be able to purchase a home and not be totally redlined to something that was really awful. And because they were not redlined that allowed my parents to then, like, own a home somewhere that was completely separate from the city and they could kind of be wherever they wanted. And now me, it's like, well, now I do not have enough money to buy a house myself in New York City. That will never happen.
CG: Wait, you’re not a multi-millionaire?
JL: I know right? But it means that there is like this history of land, because the one thing that my grandparents were told was that power in the United States is land. Land is power.
So then what does that mean when all of a sudden you have someone who has this land ostensibly, but nothing to do with it and you don't know how to keep it up? The neighborhood that's around it is gone. Maybe you have a store. Do you try to hold on to that? The context has completely changed. And is it worth holding onto it just because at one point land was power?
Or do you have to kind of look at yourself and what the world around you is saying and say, actually, this is not the kind of thing that I need. This is not the model of what it means to be an American that I am subscribing to right now. Because it's so easy to be like, oh, I have this house. We have to do that house thing. But, you might not be able to take care of it, you know? And what does that mean if you can't take care of this land or this property and it becomes this very difficult thing to talk about. And so I was really interested in how this play can open up the space to begin to have some of those conversations.
CG: Have you done a reading of this play yet?
JL: This is the first public reading. We had a reading yesterday and I've done a smaller, just some people around the table — just really kind of hear it and figure it out — because … it’s a beast of a play. There are two thirds that are kind of in our world and then a third that is less in our world.
And it's been very interesting trying to map that. I need to hear a lot of this in order to figure out how we're mapping this and what is happening between these two parts of this thing.
CG: What’s the rest of the week going to look like for you?
JL: We're in rehearsals. So I'll probably be doing revisions in the morning and then rehearsal from like three to eight and then on Thursday, we have an event at Dartmouth with the playwrights [Making a Living, Making a Life]. I think it’s a conversation about finances? (laughs)
CG: Like a career, “how I got here”?
JL: It’s always crazy when you’re like, “Where have I gotten?” because you never feel it on the other side until it’s very apparent. There’s a part of me that’s like, “That’s a great question, how do we get there?” (laughs) But I’m really excited for that.
And then on Friday is isaiah hines’ play and Jeremy O’Brian’s play and then we’re at 2pm on Saturday and then Cntrl+Alt(Right)Del [by Sheldon Shaw.] And I think Friday night there’s also a party [Out Here 2.0 at Piecemeal Pies]. Sunday is Keelay Gipson’s play Demons.
It’s also really exciting being up here with all these playwrights. I’ve heard of Keelay before and I’m super excited that I get to be on the same bill as him. Or somebody like Jeremy O’Brian who does something so totally different than me and yet we're constantly in the same rooms.
It's just so cool that we do totally different things and yet, we're existing in this greater diaspora. People get to see two radically different versions of black life on stage. It's so exciting to me.
CG: So I know you’ve been here less than 48 hours, but what are your impressions of White River Junction so far?
JL: I love it. So I'm from Asheville, North Carolina, which means that this is basically home. This reminds me of so many towns, not necessarily Asheville, but right around, which is really where everyone lives. I'm like, this is home. I've got mountains. I've got trees. This is great. There's more snow here. Yeah. And you know how to deal with snow better. (laughs)
CG: This is kind of the it-hasn’t-snowed-in-awhile-everything’s-melty. I wish you were here when, you know, (sound of a bunch of snow dumping on Vermont.) It’s so pretty.
JL: Back home, it's like it will sprinkle and everyone's like, ‘Shut it down.’ So, it's nice to see that some people know how to deal with it.
CG: What is the value in coming to a new place? Why come here rather than workshop in New York?
JL: I think for workshopping, both staying and leaving, they both have their benefits. I think what's exciting about being here is a level of focus, like a degree of focus, because the only thing that I have to really do here is write.
And that's not entirely true, but it's essentially true of me, and being able to give yourself that space and that time. There's a part of it that's always difficult to be separated from your partner. It's always difficult to kind of pack everything into a bag. There are people who are constantly traveling and I’m such a homebody.
But this is a week where the only thing I have to do is write and talk about this play and figure it out. And when you're in New York, you do not get that luxury because there are so many different things that are trying to capture your attention. And it's just been really great to already feel like I kind of have that space to relax.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JAGFest 4.0 runs from February 7-9 with performances at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction and the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover. Johnny G. Lloyd’s play, The Problem with Magic, Is:, will be read on Saturday February 8 at 2pm.
Colleen Goodhue is a videomaker and writer living in West Lebanon, NH. She loves archives, long layovers, and all kinds of friendly competition. She performs with Valley Improv, the Upper Valley’s best and only improv troupe.