Spotlight on C.A. Johnson: A story that’s much larger than its spectacle

We’re bringing New Orleans to Midtown Manhattan this spring with the world premiere of Playing Hot (April 18 – May 12, 2019). This singular and explosive theatrical event retraces the life of Buddy Bolden, the radical trumpeter who pioneered jazz.

In advance of the premiere, we’ve sat down with all the artists involved to get a deeper look into the process of building this jazz concert-party-play hybrid. We’re kicking things off with profiles on the members of our team who grew up in Louisiana, and are lending their very specific and vital voice and expertise to our production. First up is our remarkable co-writer, playwright C.A. Johnson. Learn all about C.A. in the interview below, and snag your tickets now at the highly limited Super Early Bird rate.

Pipeline Theatre Company: What do you want the folks reading this to know about Playing Hot? What’s the most important element of this project to you?

C.A. Johnson: I think this is a show about the costs of genius.  Yes, Buddy created a musical style that literally became the basis of much of popular music for decades, but in doing so, he put himself at risk. In certain times, these have been the costs for visionaries, and if you make that visionary a Black man then it just gets even more dark.

PTC: What is your relationship to Buddy Bolden’s story?

CJ: What’s funny is that even though I’m from New Orleans and was raised by a family of musicians, I didn’t learn about Buddy until my 20s. So much of consuming jazz back home can just be a about brass, Mardi Gras, and partying, but to know the deep, deep history of it all requires you to really sit down.

PTC: Talk to us about jazz. What’s your relationship to the music?

CJ: Well I was born and raised in the New Orleans area, so I was raised on Jazz. From the second lines and jazz concerts of my childhood to my great-aunt first handing me a Miles Davis record at about thirteen and just saying “you betta listen”, jazz and the blues were my first musical languages.

PTC: How did you first become involved in this project?

CJ: Kevin and Jaki reached out to me about this great project they’d been developing and their interest in working alongside an artist who grew up in New Orleans and could lend that expertise. I read the script, watched a taping of a workshop, and just fell in love. 

PTC: What drew you to this story in particular? What makes this urgent for you?

CJ: The show is so fun and vibrant (like any good concert), but it quickly becomes a story that’s much larger than its spectacle. Buddy Bolden was a genius and a pioneer, but we don’t know about him because he had some pretty specific problems in a time when Black men’s wellbeing and mental health weren’t of public importance. We don’t know him, because history didn’t care to. So I’m excited to be a part of telling some piece of that story.

PTC: Will you share a bit of your personal history with us? Where in Louisiana did you grow up and what brought you to New York?

CJ: I grew up outside the city in Metairie, LA as well as all over the city proper. I really came to New York because theater was calling, but I’ve lived all over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic since around Hurricane Katrina.

PTC: What has it been like for you to bring New Orleans to New York through Playing Hot?

CJ: New York is such a city of schedules and timetables and events, while New Orleans has a culture of kick-backs, approximations, and tardiness. Nothing happens quickly because really nothing needs to, so capturing that spirit in a theatrical performance feels like both the biggest and most exciting challenge.

PTC: What parts of New Orleans do you feel it’s most important to represent through this story?

CJ: I think it’s important to represent the resilience of the city of New Orleans. It’s a place that has survived so much because its people never give up. From corruption to natural disasters, the spirit of New Orleans is one of letting the good times roll, and always finding a way out of the dark.  There’s a party to be had out in the light after all!

In addition to Playing Hot, you can catch C.A.’s play, The Climb, at Cherry Lane Theatre Mentor Project April 3-13th. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cajohso90. And don’t forget, grab those Playing Hot tix before it’s too late!