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Je'Caryous Johnson's new play has St. Louis connections

Je'Caryous Johnson

Je’Caryous Johnson may not be a household name, but next to Tyler Perry, he is the most successful African-American playwright going, whose stage productions have grossed more than $100 million.

He was the first to adapt a published African-American romance novel into a play. It was “Friends and Lovers” by novelist Eric Jerome Dickey. Since then the Houston native, who studied with master playwright August Wilson, has written, directed and produced back to back hits for nearly two decades.

Johnson is bringing his brand of “love, laughter and drama” to St. Louis this month with his play “The Things Your Man Won’t Do” at the Peabody. It stars Tichina Arnold, Leon, Wendy Raquel Robinson and Brian White. The play is set in St. Louis against the backdrop of the events of Ferguson. Rachel Braxton (Arnold) is trying to decide whether or not to stay in her relationship with her boyfriend, Demetrius McAlister (White), who, after living with her for two years, won’t take the big step toward marriage. Things become more complicated when her ex, Blake Mathison (Leon), re-enters the picture.

Johnson juxtaposes the escalation of events and emotions in Ferguson against the building frustrations within the relationship. The eruption in Ferguson prompted Johnson to set the play in St. Louis.

“I have something to say about this, because there is an injustice here. But I also have something to say about how we deal with ourselves and how we raise our kids and what are we doing as parents and how do we avoid these injustices,” he said. Johnson raised the latter point in reference to the background of a character, Damien Watson, played by Tony Grant, that parallels that of Michael Brown.

Grant’s character, Damien, stole cigarettes when he was 16 years old and, as an adult, has not been able to build a life beyond that criminal act. “He’s an adult and he’s still being punished. Doing something as a dumb kid has handicapped him in his ability to provide and be something, as a man,” Johnson said. In addition to Johnson wanting to create commentary about Ferguson, his decision to use St. Louis as the setting was also inspired by his very personal connection to the region.

Personal St. Louis connection

Recently Johnson married St. Louis native Meaghan Chrystal Roberts, daughter of Michael and Jeanne Gore Roberts. Michael Roberts heads the Roberts Companies, which has real estate and other interests. Johnson said his journey toward marriage caused him to reflect on himself and his relationships. The revelations, ideas and ideals that became clear from these reflections are mirrored in his work, which is primarily centered on often complicated matters of love between men and women. His work has been especially well received by African-American audiences.

“The black community is responding to the fact that they long for relationships. There isn’t much out there that is showing black love this way,” Johnson explained. The black audience in St. Louis has proven to be a strong supporter of Johnson’s work, generating sold-out performances.

“The theater-going crowd [in St. Louis] is a good crowd,” Johnson said, who said “there is a lot of culture in St. Louis.” If the city continues to be receptive to Johnson’s work, he will definitely consider bringing more of his business to the area.

“My wife and her entire family are from St. Louis, which does open up a different level of interest, and not just as it pertains to entertainment. I own other companies that can be a benefit to St. Louis as well.”

Johnson now considers St. Louis to be his second home and his play to be a gift. “This is my first contribution to St. Louis. It’s a contribution to my in-laws.”

With his work, Johnson wants to touch lives and evoke change. “There’s something to be said about the way the world is. And you’ll get a perspective and a view in this play. But most importantly, you’ll walk away with an idea of how it can be different, and what those possibilities can look like – all the while, being entertained. This show works for everybody.”

The basics

When: 3 and 7:30 p.m., March 15

Where: Peabody Opera House

Cost: $47.50 - $50.50

Tickets: Ticketmaster

Information: JeCaryous.com

Follow Wendy Todd on Twitter:   @_WendyTodd