"EMERALD City's got 15 seconds to get on stage! Munchkins may leave! We will see you tomorrow at 7 o'clock sharp!"
It's four days until showtime here at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium; the 100 or so students, faculty, guest artists, alumni, children, poodle and assorted others involved in this weekend's production of "The Wiz"--the black, up-tempo version of "The Wizard of Oz"--are working extra hard, extra long. On stage, a horde of muscular flying monkeys leap and whirl through a wild number, then stop to take direction from a dynamic, bearded, gum-chewing buddha in clogs. Addressing the dancers in a low voice, he hones right in on the small detail, demonstrates a wicked step, and--presto!--the monkeys look twice as fine.
This buddha is none other than Louis Johnson, one of the most successful black choreographers and directors of our time. A creative chameleon, he has fashioned ballets for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem; done the dances for Broadway shows such as "Purlie," "Lost in the Stars" and "Treemonisha"; staged acts for Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and Noel Pointer. For the folks at Howard, though, he's The Man Who Choreographed the Movie Version of "The Wiz," shaped it anew according to their special talents, and--by means of assistants and his own quick trips down from New York City--put them through their grueling but dynamite paces.
"I love working with youth, and with talented people," says Johnson. "Howard has an abundance of them, Washington has an abundance of them. There should just be more outlets for that talent." The choreographer should know. Raised in the District, trained in acrobatics at the YMCA and ballet at the Jones-Haywood School of Dance (and later at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet), he was instrumental in the development of Howard's dance department. For a time, he maintained his own troupe, the D.C. Repertory Company. His current involvement with all those munchkins, poppies, witches and denizens of Emerald City is his way of continuing his connection with the young artists of this city.
Johnson views his versatility as a dancemaker and director as a means of survival. "Being black, you don't have the kind of openings that let you stay in one style," he explains. "Being as versatile as I am came out of necessity." Now, however, he wouldn't have it any other way: "I love eating apples, oranges and pears, not just apples." He does prefer the control that theater affords to the vagaries of a cut-happy film editor, but laments the state of contemporary musical theater in America. "It's like the state of the world--how screwed up life is today. Theater's the same way. Producers today aren't artists, they're only thinking of dollars. And when you're talking artistically to them, they don't know what you're talking about. They won't take risks."
Johnson's savvy and energy have led him to a host of worthwhile projects--the latest are a Melvin Van Peebles musical about Bessie Smith, for which he is doing the choreography, and an opportunity to stage jazz singer Ruth Brown's act. But this week, "The Wiz" is his baby. Mixing stage and screen movement, he hasn't merely created dance numbers, but an overall style of elegance and sass. Take one look at the way he peoples a stage, sets in motion a group of hula-hooping youngsters, breathes life into a prop or a long skein of fabric, and you can already hear the cheers.