Maxson had already seen enough of them to know. Baseball was his life and his world even during his 15-year stint in prison on a murder and robbery rap. In fact, he would return to become a Negro League homerun king following his release in the 1950s.
But the era’s demon racism would rear its ghastly head, denying Maxson a coveted shot at the majors. Death, it seems, also conspires off the field, claiming him by show’s end.
“Fences,” mounted by San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre Company in 2008, featured Ocean Beach actor Antonio “TJ” Johnson, playing Maxson in one of the most spectacular performances in recent local memory.
Johnson’s turn at the role was all the more remarkable because he was battling a pesky case of pneumonia during the latter half of the run. Herbs and vitamins were de rigueur backstage as the cast propped up its remarkable leading man.
That’s one of a litany of stories that dot Johnson’s 30-year career in San Diego theater. For the award-winning actor, coach, founding artistic director, lecturer, post-doctoral graduate of the esteemed Hard Knocks University, tireless advocate for Wilson and Shakespeare, the glow from his reviews threatening to set his house on fire. His résumé reads like that of a veteran New York stage performer. And right now, that’s especially appropriate.
On June 5, Johnson will travel 5,000 miles northeast and make a sharp left at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, trading a fairly predictable theater climate for the toughest and most competitive in the nation.
Monday, May 6, marks Johnson’s public sendoff. He’ll play legendary singer-actor Paul Robeson at The Ocean Beach Playhouse and Center for the Arts in a staged reading of Ed Schmidt’s “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” in which Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey outlines his plan to call the great Jackie Robinson up from the minors.
The playhouse is located at 4944 Newport Ave. More information is available at (619) 222-0836. A reception follows at Cheswick’s West tavern,
5038 Newport Ave.
From there, Johnson will set up shop in Brooklyn with only a TV, a microwave and memories of a recent audition with La Jolla Playhouse. The latter experience in Ocean Beach jump-started his search for new horizons. Clearly, Johnson’s primary residence is the stage, and he lives and breathes theater for the desperately personal experience it is.
“I find myself going in a circle [in San Diego],” Johnson said. “I do this thing and then I’ll do a little part, and I’ll sing some songs, I’ll do lectures. I seem to always be busy. And I seem to always be involved in everything, and that’s good. I live two blocks from the ocean, and that’s wonderful. But after that audition, I saw my future, and I just don’t want to see it end here. I still want to be excited about what’s going to happen when I get up in the morning.
“It seems like the directors in this town have an idea about me that’s not going to change after 30 years while I’m here,” he said. “So I need to go someplace where people don’t know me and I can change their minds.”
Johnson seems physically up to the task. These days, he looks 15 years younger than his stated age of 60. Word is he’s lost close to 70 pounds over the last two years and is keeping his Type II diabetes mostly at bay amid his newfound dedication to bicycling all over the universe.
Nonetheless, Johnson faces a serious statistical row to hoe. Actors’ Equity Association, the national labor union that represents live-theater performers and stage managers, routinely cites
80 percent unemployment among its members. Who knows how much higher the figure might be among non-equity personnel (Johnson doesn’t belong to the union), whose numbers aren’t necessarily tracked. And plenty of other cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle and Johnson’s hometown of Chicago boast arguably more stimulating theater climates than San Diego.
What’s the big deal about the Big Apple?
Noted director Victor Mack, who helmed Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” at Cygnet earlier this season, reportedly said Johnson is “a true Wilsonian actor,” not just an actor who performs Wilson.
“That’s one of the biggest compliments of my career,” Johnson said.
The iconic Wilson is the stage’s standard bearer for portrayal of the roily 20th-century black experience — and what better tribute, Johnson said, than to reinvent himself in a city where a theater bears the playwright’s name.
Meanwhile, stand-up comedy and work at smaller venues are on Johnson’s agenda, with a much greater goal in mind.
“I don’t want to be a ‘black-tor,’” Johnson said. “I want to do [Shakespeare’s] King Lear and [Arthur Miller’s] Willy Loman and I want to be that one-in-a-million who breaks through those jobless numbers. I want to do all of it, and I still have something to prove.”
San Diego theater community seems less-than-prepared to help.
“We have become a fragmented community the last 30 years,” Johnson said. “We have the Cygnet community. We have the [Old] Globe community. We have the La Jolla Playhouse community. We also have great people here, and we could be like New York. Can’t we [at least] have the [annual] Craig Noel Awards on TV? Starting a new company, starting classes, I could do all that stuff. I just don’t think the [theater] community will is here as a unit to make it worthwhile. Even with the younger people coming up.”
It is true that San Diego-area theatergoers are underserved and probably always will be — but that doesn’t necessarily translate to sub-par shows. MOXIE Theatre’s “A Raisin in the Sun;” Cygnet’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street;” “Metamorphoses,” from Lamb’s Players Theatre; La Jolla Playhouse’s “Beauty,” are a few outstanding examples of local performances over the last many years, and many more will surface sooner than later.
But to hear Johnson tell it, a certain stagnation dogs local theater as a whole in the city, forcing his hand to other locales. His departure — or rather, the terms under which he’s leaving — render it that much more inert.
— Martin Jones Westlin, a freelance writer for The Beacon, is the former theater editor at San Diego CityBeat and is founding publisher of the theater-film website Words Are Not Enough, now on hiatus.