This Friday, Catastrophic Theatre premieres the newest play from Miki Johnson, Fleaven, which looks a hella lotta cray cray in the best possible way. Set in a town, that is a mall, that is a disco mall, it tells the story of disco superstar Heaven and his scarred relationship with his rival, Flame, who went on to create hip-hop after being left behind by his former friend. Rollerskates are involved and there is even a disco mall ghost. Really, what else could you ask for?!! We contacted playwright Miki Johnson to ask about her play, her inspiration, and a certain Olivia Newton-John movie.
First off, why don’t you explain what the play is about?
Miki –The mall is the town. The town is the mall. The mall is a disco mall. In the 1970s, the town of Rolling acres mall was a disco paradise and at its center was popular local band, Fleaven. Fleaven is Flame and Heaven fused. Heaven, our story’s protagonist, is the electronic drummer in Fleaven and Flame, our villain, is the singer. The two have been best friends since they were boys and have made plans to be disco stars together. But one day, through the corridors of the mall strolled an impressive trio of international disco professionals and they recruited Heaven to be their electronic drummer. The name of this new band is Denim Shorts. Denim Shorts becomes wildly famous all over the world, gracing the cover of Time magazine, winning the Grammy. And Flame is left behind in the town of Rolling Acres Mall; he is so hurt and jealous that he decides to sabotage Denim Shorts and terrorize the town and his old friend Heaven. When the play begins, the town of Rolling Acres mall is now called Fleaven by order of Flame, the Town’s Town Villain and his entourage of hip-hop dancers. Heaven has been sacked from yet another crummy job as a result of the villainy of Flame and with the help of Seven, Heaven’s most loyal friend, he hatches up a plan to save the town.
How did the idea of Fleaven come about?
Miki –You know that Chris Brown song LOOK AT ME NOW where Weezy comes on and goes, “What’s poppin, Five/ Nothin’ Slime, and if they trippin’ fuck ’em Five/ I ain’t got no time to shuck and jive, these niggas as sweet as pumpkin pie/ Ciroc and Sprite on a private flight/ Bitch I been tight since Guiding Light”?
Okay, so that song came out. (This is sometime in early 2011, I think.) And I was acting in a taxing play about sexual trauma called CRAVE by Sarah Kane which was leaving me dangerously dark and moody which lead to the late discovery of and subsequent obsession with FAMILY GUY.
Around that same time, I found out we (Catastrophic) were going to do a play by one of the greatest playwrights I know, Mickle Maher, and that that play was going to be written in verse.
So one day, after one brutal rehearsal or another, I sat down in front of a muted episode of Family Guy and began the play:
Seven: What’s poppin, Heaven?
Heaven: Nothin’, Seven.
And the rest is history.
Can you go into the psychology of Heaven and Flame, their relationship, and what inspired them?
Miki – They’re both me. Inspired by human things that are all human and icky: envy, lying, forgiveness, failure, humiliation, regret, love.
Is this set in the 70’s?
Miki –It’s set in the present day with mucho flashbacks to the ’70s. The truth: I made few choices in the writing of the play– the rhymes and meter and sounds made the choices for me.
What’s Flames deal?
Miki – Flame is a former disco artist who has accidentally created a new sound: hip-hop. He has so much anger and his emotions are so gigantic that he has to use music to work through them, but the smooth to funky to dulcet tones of disco will not do– the mother of invention gives birth to hip-hop.
How does this fit in with work you have previously done?
Miki – All the things I do live in the same neighborhood since I learned to say no to projects that don’t turn me on: The most vibrant, dynamic, honest and purely talented performers in the city schlepping into the theatre and bringing all their shit up on the stage and leaving it there. It can be whimsical like FLEAVEN or dark like AMERICAN FALLS or bizarre like OUR LATE NIGHT or epic like BLUEFINGER– it doesn’t matter what it is; we only go all the way. So, it fits in quite nicely.
How has working with Jason Nodler, Tamarie Cooper, and Joe Mathlete?
Miki –They are three of the best artists I know. And as most other artists, I know a shit-lot of artists and these are the best. If you need to move bodies through space with virtuosic creativity, humor and speed, then get Tamarie. If you need to hear the world through a genius’ righteously twisted paradigm, then get Joe. If you need a master storyteller/ editor/ conductor/ rhythm-master/ tastemaker and an overall show-builder, then get Jason.
How much input have you had on the current production?
Miki – I go to rehearsal every day. This thing is a family affair.
Has the final production matched the way you imagined it and in what ways has it deviated from your expectations?
Miki – My expectation: Tasty Ice Cream Sandwich
Final production: Full Blown Sundae Bar at the Circus on Fourth of July
Can you tell us a bit about the actors involved and what they have brought to your work and also is there any performances that stand out to you?
Miki –I’ve been acting in plays for nearly 20 years, and now, as the playwright, I have my chance to say: The actor is EVERYTHING. Yes, you can’t have a crap script, and a good director and lighting designer certainly cannot hurt, BUT the actor is the king. Kyle Sturdivant plays HEAVEN. Kyle is a master clown, singer and performer, but he’s also got smarts, sensitivity and lots of soul and he uses every bit of himself; I could watch him all day. Troy Sculze (Seven) is the kind of actor who makes it all look so easy. He can play the straight man better than anyone I know, but can also swing the full spectrum from the charming mench to the tortured soul. Noel Bowers (Flame), in addition to being one of the city’s best elementary school teachers, is one of the city’s (and I would gladly say country’s) funniest comics. The dude is just funny: He’s fearless and has mathematical timing. Jeff Miller has what I thought was the trickiest part in the play, a ghost that haunts the disco mall, and as so often happens with Jeff, I was amazed at how quick and deep he jumped in; he has amazing range and surprises me all the time. And then… and THEN we have populated this world with the best (and weirdest) dancers in town, the best (and weirdest) musicians in town and the best (and weirdest) collection of actors around. Bring a helmet, y’all. They’re gonna blow your mind.
If your play ended with one of those old Saturday Morning Cartoon moments at the end of the show where the audience learns a lesson, what would you think that lesson would be from having watched Fleaven?
Miki –FLEAVEN is an Old Saturday Morning Cartoon. But to learn the lesson of Fleaven, we must all gather round in the theatre together, side by side.
The play opens this week so why don’t you take us out with a good old carnival barker pitch of your play for the folks out there.
Miki –Fleaven is a town that is a shopping mall.
You can hit the shit at Penney’s or a bathroom stall.
Hit that shit at the cineplex.
(And when I say ‘hit that’ I mean sex.)
That’s all the pitch anyone should need.
Thanks you very much…oh wait, Miki…One last, last, last question. Will it be as awesome as Xanadu?
Miki – CAN anything be as awesome as Xanadu?
Fleaven premieres this Friday, November 2 and runs through Saturday November 17, 2012 at the Frenetic Theater ( 5102 Navigation Blvd).