Paul Grellong’s (The Boys, Manuscript) new play, Power of Sail, makes its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Running through March 13, the story centers on Harvard professor Charles Nichols (Bryan Cranston), who invites a white nationalist to speak on campus. In the days before the annual symposium, who pays the price when hate is disguised as free speech?
Donna Simone Johnson (A Hit Dog Will Holler, Bring Down the House (Henry VI)) plays the role of FBI agent Quinn Harris. I looked forward to our phone call late one afternoon, especially because Power of Sail marks her Geffen Playhouse debut. We spoke at length about her career and the topics covered by this new production.
“Mom, look, I’m doing Shakespeare for a living!”
Johnson is proud of many things in her acting career, including her appearance at the Geffen. She said, “It seemed like something you leveled up to. I was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2020. I was already looking forward to working at these larger theaters.”
Her late maternal grandmother, who adopted her and her sister and had been an actress, was a special influence on her early life. “She passed away in 2005. Moments like this would blow her mind. The fact that I’m in these rooms and getting the opportunity to play these roles blows my mind.”
Aside from her acting roles, Johnson devotes a considerable amount of time to serving as Co-Artistic Director at the Watts Village Theater Company in South Los Angeles. Involved with under-resourced communities, she found that community members have a voice and thoughts to share, but they were never “handed a mic.”
“Serendipitously, I ended up in a position of leadership and used that to reach out to different communities to produce work that is new, but also reflects them. Instead of busing people to city center theater groups, we’re taking kids to Watts to hear stories they haven’t heard before. That provides a lot of joy and inspiration, which is necessary for longevity in this career.”
Who is Quinn Harris?
Gearing up for Power of Sail was a different process with Gellong and director Weyni Mengesha (Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Kim’s Convenience) because of the pandemic. Cast members and creatives gathered on Zoom and then in person in December, before reverting to Zoom for a while as Omicron began to surge. Everyone also agreed to limit their holiday traveling as much as possible to keep each other safe and healthy.
“The rehearsal process has been a dream, really and truly. We are truly an ensemble. We enjoy one another. We value and respect one another in that space.”
All of the characters in Power of Sail wear masks, so to speak, in how they present themselves to one another and the audience. For Quinn Harris, Johnson’s character, there’s a certain level of neutrality to try and maintain in her duty as an FBI agent. “We discussed a lot in rehearsal that I don’t believe that a Black woman can be neutral. I think that simply by being in this body, that makes a statement. People have an opinion.”
“The moment Quinn leaves the office and Professor Nichols calls his friend, all he has to say is that the FBI agent was a Black woman. It doesn’t matter if I was nice, mean, or demeaning, just that [fact] alone lets people know how he feels about it. As an actor, I just try to be as neutral as possible, and open up my heart and mind to this perspective, because I am coming from that experience as a Black woman placed in this circumstance.”
Changing Cultural Discussions
I asked Johnson if doing this play reminded her of attending college, an institution traditionally thought of as a beacon of free speech. “I did not attend Harvard, but I did attend a very conservative Christian school in Orange County. It was a culture shock for this Black girl from LA. It was a space in which the First Amendment was [used as a cloak] to hide a lot of racist and sexist ideology, but also on that campus, not a lot of that was hidden.”
Professor Nichol’s predicament is set in 2019. Johnson pointed out that the play probably couldn’t work if set in 2022. After the 2020 headlines about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the discussions have shifted. “Culturally we’ve begun to introduce new terminologies in our day-to-day experiences: things like CRT, but also the idea of reexamining what an ally means and what taking action means. Once we got past the corporatization of this moment, I’ve felt that a lot of my friends are simply more aware of their words, but they also take responsibility for changing that culture around them.
“I think that [term] ‘white nationalist’ means something different now, especially after the insurrections at the Capitol. We’re thinking about these things and extremist ideas a little bit differently, seeing them as more dangerous than we did before.”
Returning to the Stage
Coming back to rehearsals, Johnson applauds the open and welcoming space that Weyni created for cast members. One highlight was getting to watch Bryan Cranston and Amy Brenneman bring in their TV skills to their portrayals and how they explore their characters. Also, at a dress rehearsal by invitation, Cranston’s friends attended and provided some helpful feedback.
Johnson had a moment to bond with Tedra Millan backstage, appreciating this time to be back in the theater. “We both almost cried. I will never take this moment for granted again: the feeling of being in the wings and hearing people talk. We haven’t experienced that for two years. It will change the way I view rehearsals henceforth, but it also bonded us together. We really understand how special the opportunity is, the show aside.”
She encourages everyone to visit the Geffen Playhouse for the production. “I would love them to come see the play. Come with an open mind and discuss something in the lobby afterwards! I think this work really speaks for itself and its context.”
For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Geffen Playhouse’s website.