PVD Fest: Interview with Christopher Johnson

I can’t imagine Providence without Christopher Johnson in it, and I told him so recently when we met to discuss his upcoming contributions to PVD Fest, the celebration of arts and ideas presented by the city and Firstworks since 2015. Originally from Newark, NJ, Christopher arrived on the scene in 2003 and became an integral thread in the city’s creative and cultural fabric, connecting poetry, theater, activism, education, music, spaces and groups of artists by performing his poems and plays at every possible venue. Over the years, I’ve seen him all over the place, and I know he was still out there doing the work, even when I wasn’t there to see it. Outside the Creative Capital, he tours nationally, recently performing alongside stars such as Esperanza Spalding and Kuku Live. Christopher has ideas. Big ideas. New ideas. Dangerous ideas. He is fearless in his pursuit of sharing them, and perhaps his roles in this year’s PVD Fest are the perfect poetic metaphor to illustrate his cultural contributions, and his deep attachment, to the city of Providence.

Nikki Carrera: So tell me about what you’re doing at PVD Fest.

Christopher Johnson: So personally, I will have a lot going on. I brought up some poets from Boston and Worcester to perform at Grants Block. I have poets from here and Boston who are going to walk around the city and perform poetry in public spaces. People from the Sound Session/Black Rep era will be on the mainstage, opening up before Bandaloop. And I’m doing PVDYouth, happening over at the Roger Williams National Memorial, where there will be kid-friendly performances, hula hooping and clowns and buskers and jugglers — it’s alcohol-free, so if you want a place to take your kids and be free of certain things, that will be a good place to go to.

And then I’m going to be walking down a 10-story building while Bandaloop is performing vertical dancing, and I’m doing this poem I’m going to create about the City of Providence..

NC: What have you gone through to learn how to perform with Bandaloop?

CJ: About a month ago I went out to Oakland to practice with Bandaloop. First they put me on a harness 2 feet off the ground. Then they put me 6 feet off the ground. Then 30 feet off the ground and I practiced walking down. Amy [my trainer] knew I was able to do it the first time she put me in the harness. In all the interviews I’ve done about this, everyone wants to know about the fear– I don’t believe anybody in the city wants to see me fail. I believe everyone wants me to be the best I can be.

NC: I just can’t wait to hear your voice filling all that space! So do you have any previous experience with this sort of thing?

CJ: Yeah, I’m gonna have the voice of God for three minutes. If I have a fear, it’s not being “up there,” it’s letting people down. It’s dropping my poem. I’m there because I believe people believe in me, and so therefore I’m there doing it. I’ve jumped out of second story windows, climbed trees, played hide-and-go-seek on rooftops. When I was a kid, that’s what we did. We played in abandoned buildings. I’m more worried about dropping my poem than me being dropped. I’ve jumped from rooftop to rooftop at 10 stories. Yeah, I’ll be fine.

NC: That’s poetic. Is your poetry central to the work, and is Bandaloop working with it now?

CJ: There’s two components to this. They are bringing in some vocalists and they will mix with our vocalists, and there’s the dancers aspect. It’s public canvas. Not just Bandaloop coming in and doing their thing, but their artists working with our artists. Two poets, two singers, a hip-hop freestyle artist – -if you were around during the Black Rep era, then you would be happy to see these people on stage together again, doing their thing. Yes, but [the text] hasn’t gone out yet because it hasn’t been written. Wednesday, we’re having a dinner, getting people together around the Cranston Street Armory. We’re trying to build up some interest around the armory because we want to keep it a community-based thing, not this thing where the state takes it over, gives it to a contractor and more gentrification. Even though there are people in this city who would love more gentrification, there are those of us who would not. The idea is to bring people around and find out ‘What are your fondest memories?’ I just found out today we have this woman who is 89 years old, living in Providence her whole life. I know she is going to say something endearing. So that when I’m walking down the building, people’s words will be spewing from my mouth. I’m trying to keep it as local as possible.

NC: Okay, put on your dramaturg hat now. How are you going to tie this physical act of walking down the face of the building to the other performance elements?

CJ: I’m sure there’s a metaphor. Even if it is a “look up in the sky”– even though we are right next to the Superman building — it might have something to do with deconstructing Superman. I’m not really a fan of Superman.

NC: Why not?

CJ: I’m tired of white saviors. Providence is leading in that department, where we are giving voice to marginalized voices, people who don’t normally have an opportunity to speak. Here there is a freedom that is not in other parts of the country. Here, let me use my privilege to allow someone else to have voice; I think Providence is really leading the nation in that…I really want to bring out our strong points, I also have to bring up the points where people from outside Providence keep coming here and seeing how great it is, while people who are from here are looking out and trying to leave.

I want to bring light to these issues while I’m up there. I don’t want everyone to be happy with what I have to say. My job as a poet is to speak the truth. I’m here to have you think about something you didn’t think about before. To challenge your beliefs, move you from one state of equilibrium to another. I’m not here to make you clap and make you happy and cheer me on. I can’t make everybody happy.

I think there is a lot I want to say up on that wall, but I do want to leave people with a feeling that I love this city.

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.” –John F. Kennedy, 1963

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