Christine Toy Johnson’s play The Secret Wisdom of Trees, about a woman’s need to map her past as she faces a future with Alzheimer’s disease, will get a fresh developmental step in a reading at Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre Aug. 11. Johnson will be on the FST campus for rehearsals with director Carolyn Michel.
I first wrote about Johnson’s seven-character play several years ago when The Barrow Group was exploring it in a 2016 reading in Manhattan. At the time, the fabulous actress Lynn Cohen played Abby Green, an independent and funny octogenarian who anticipates her journey into dementia by planting trees in places that were important in her life experience. Sadly, Cohen died in 2020, but the roots of the play she helped grow are still fertile.
“It’s inspired by a couple of lifelong family friends and some life events that they have been going through over the past couple of years,” Johnson told me back in the day, when the play was just a sapling.
Here’s how Florida Studio Theatre bills the 80-minute Secret Wisdom of Trees: “Abby Green tries to prepare her family and herself for her journey into Alzheimer’s by planting trees at the locations of her biggest memories. When her daughter dies and her grandchildren turn against her, Abby struggles with knowing that even her most painful memories are becoming difficult to hold onto. With her husband of 60 years by her side, she is filled with questions in her own personal race against time. Though she’s survived her daughter, can she survive her grandsons? Is blood thicker than spite? What’s worse — losing your family or losing the memories of what has become of them? And can love live beyond memory the way trees never forget to regenerate their leaves?”
Johnson is the award-winning actor (Come From Away on tour), playwright-lyricist and theater inclusion advocate whose “The Dramatists Guild Presents: Talkback” podcast series is a must-listen for all theater people. She is also treasurer of the Dramatists Guild and a co-founder of AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition), for which she and her colleagues received a 2022 Tony Honor.
I asked her what has changed since her play’s first reading.
“This is really one of my favorite plays I’ve ever written and I’m so thrilled that FST invited me to do this workshop in front of their audience,” Johnson told me. “Lynn and [her husband] Ron Cohen did many readings of the play for me as we tried to find a home for it back in 2016, and their voices are indelibly etched into the DNA of ‘Abby and Danny Green.’ Since then, I’ve had a couple of other informal readings — one with members of my Come From Away cast! — as well as a virtual presentation of it with the Actors Center during the shutdown, as part of a tribute to Lynn. Ron so generously read the play again alongside Rita Gardner. Sadly, we lost Rita this past year. We also lost my two dear family friends whose story is at the root of this play, during the early days of the pandemic, within 24 hours of one another. So, though the play has grown but not changed substantively over the past few years, it’s the loss of these key muses that resonates with me. I’ll never forget them and never stop being grateful to them for inspiring me.”
Finding and charting one’s place in the world is essential to the play, and to Johnson’s mission as an artist.
“I find that I write a lot about identity and belonging,” Johnson said. “I don’t necessarily set out to do so, but as a sixth-generation Asian American woman, my own struggle with feeling excluded from the American landscape of storytelling is, I realize, my ‘essential wound.’ It’s what drives me to keep exploring a reconciliation of — in different ways, through different characters, in different situations — the need to fight for my place in the world. Though this is the first time I haven’t included any Asian American characters in one of my plays, I found that writing characters based on people I’ve known my whole life — and writing about their struggle to hold on tight to their own identities — reminded me that family is not always bound by race, ethnicity, or religion, but truly by love. And love outlives memory. And these friends are my family.”
The Secret Wisdom of Trees is a rare play with an elder person at its center.
Johnson explained, “It’s meant a lot to me to illuminate the story of a woman ‘of a certain age,’ one whose passion for life and her soulmate has never waned — so influenced by my conversations with Lynn [Cohen] — but who finds herself needing to navigate her own journey of self-discovery in a new and unexpected way. In fictionalizing this story, I realize I was trying to heal my family friend’s real-life story in some way — with my wish for them that hope springs eternal in finding forgiveness and healing within one’s own family and in discovering you are able to hold on tight to your own special place in the world, no matter who or what tries to wrestle it away from you.”
The cast of Florida Studio Theatre’s 3 PM Aug. 11 reading of The Secret Wisdom of Trees features Cinda Goeken as Abby; Gavin Johnson as Jacob; James Kassees as Danny; Casey Murphy as Jonathan; Sammy Pontello as Noah; Catherine Randazzo as Jenny; Storm Tracy as Len.
The summer 2023 developmental reading series at FST’s Keating Theatre also includes Mark St. Germain’s The God Committee, directed by Catherine Randazzo (Aug. 18) and The Hispanic/Latino/Latina/Latinx/Latine Vote by Bernardo Cubría, directed by Sean Daniels (Aug. 25).
My play Alabama Story enjoyed a popular run at Florida Studio Theatre in 2016. It has since been published/licensed by Dramatists Play Service and will get 15 staging across the U.S. in the coming 2023-24 season. I was later invited into FST’s Playwrights Collective, which led to the 2020 commission of a three-act social justice family drama of mine, which, following a 2021 reading there, it was independently revised under the title Tennessee Williams Drank Here. Learn more about on newplayexchange.org.
Here’s my Q&A with Christine Toy Johnson on the topic of The Secret Wisdom of Trees. The Q&A has been edited and updated, drawing on my 2015 chat with her and exploring fresh ideas. (By the way, you can download her work as a dramatist at newplayexchange.org.)
To your mind, what’s Abby Green’s central mission?
Christine Toy Johnson: Abby is trying to control her impending fate. Her mother and sister also experienced Alzheimer’s. Although during the course of the play Abby has only had a few days to live with her own diagnosis so far, she has had a lifetime to “prepare” for it, knowing, as her mother says in the play, that Alzheimer’s is “the great thief of the Kirschenbaum women.” And of course, no matter how much Abby tries, she cannot ever be sufficiently prepared. She tries to make sure she will never forget what she doesn’t ever want to forget — and that she will be remembered in all the ways she wants to be remembered.
Does the play cover a lot of geographic territory? That is, are we literally going to the places where her life events happened? Does it play with time/space?
Christine Toy Johnson: The play takes place in various locations in New York City, but also in Abby’s mind, a non-literal space filled with precious memories. But ultimately, it is a very New York City-centric play.
Who are the other characters in the play? Are they “blood family” or extended?
Christine Toy Johnson: The other characters in the play are Abby and Danny’s daughter Jenny, who is facing her own challenges, Jenny’s ex-husband and their three sons.
As she faces decline, is Abby tough or vulnerable or both? How is the family impacted? We all know that family/caregivers can become victims of this disease through stress.
Christine Toy Johnson: Abby has only recently been diagnosed and is as tough as they come. But also, as loving. I think her vulnerability emerges out of the action she endeavors to take to make sure Danny, her husband of 60 years, is okay as the disease progresses. Only he knows the diagnosis; she has opted not to tell their grandsons, who become estranged from them during the course of the play because of a family lawsuit. Danny is still in the beginnings of navigating his way through the new normal and making it possible for Abby to live in all the good parts of the present.
Sorry to be sappy: Is there a love story in the play? I always look for the love.
Christine Toy Johnson: There is the deepest love story between Abby and Danny, who met freshman year of college and married upon graduation. Sixty years later, they are inseparable. When Abby tells him she’s planting the trees to mark the spot of their life events so that he’ll remember when she can’t, he replies, “As if I could forget one second of this miracle of a life we’ve had together.” That sums up how I see their never-ending love story.
How did you start and grow the play?
Christine Toy Johnson: I had the idea of dramatizing elements of my family friends’ real-life story for a while — but I literally saw a photo of Lynn Cohen at a social gathering on someone’s Facebook page (Lynn and I met years ago through The Actors Center https://theactorscenter.org/ and The Barrow Group) — and I thought, I must write this play now. And I must write it for Lynn to do. I called her, we had coffee the next day, I told her the story and that I wanted to write it for her and she said, “Yes!” The next week, I went to Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater to direct Seminar and was staying in a secluded little cabin in the woods, with sliding doors opening up onto a marsh of beautiful trees. I had already had an idea that trees would be at the center of a metaphor I wanted to explore — and here I was, waking up with the sun and being inspired by the view of these trees. As our rehearsals never began till a full six hours after I arose, I found myself finishing a first draft of the play in two weeks.
Which play or musical of yours does The Secret Wisdom of Trees most resemble, or which works of yours are sort of “in conversation” with this play?
Christine Toy Johnson: I think that my newest play, A Little More Blue — a solo play with music that I’m performing in at Riverside Theatre in New York City on Dec. 11 — is most “in conversation” with The Secret Wisdom of Trees. I love this thought because A Little More Blue, at its heart, is also largely about family and how — to quote one of my own lyrics in it — “hopes raise and love stays and here’s the reason why…there’s no reason why.”
What do you hope to get out of the Florida Studio Theatre rehearsal and reading? What are you listening for?
Christine Toy Johnson: From what I understand, this week will lead to an elevated, fully staged reading which will include technical elements I haven’t had an opportunity to see with this play yet. Also, this will be the first time I’ll be hearing the play read by actors I do not know at all (yet), directed by a director I do not know (yet) and to be in conversation with sound, lighting, and set designers who will bring their own interpretations and impulses to the play. I’m excited to experience the story with a fresh perspective and see what more there is to discover, continuing the process of honing the play to be the very best it can be. All with the goal of moving it closer, I hope, to finding a home on stage somewhere, someday.
In 2015, I suggested to you that we finally seemed to be in a time when writers of color were not “ghettoized” — by producers or by audience perception — into writing about only their own heritage. I suggested anyone can write about anything as long as sensitivity and research are part of the process. You are charting a White Jewish family in your play, which is not your lived experience. Here’s what you shared with me back then:
Christine Toy Johnson: I think that writing with authenticity is what’s key here. The universality of a human story can only be conveyed by specifics, and only if those specifics are true to the people that inhabit the story. As storytellers, we are given the honorable task of writing what we “know” — and also exploring and illuminating what we question and what we don’t know. I believe it is our responsibility to explore and illuminate with the utmost attention to authenticity, complexity, and sensitivity (as you mention) and that the privilege we have is in being able to connect the deep layers of our humanity in this way. I have written many characters that are outside of my own cultural background, and always check in with people I know who are of those backgrounds — whether it’s a person with a different ethnicity, geographical upbringing, religion, or disability etc. — to make certain that what I am writing rings true.
Of course, whatever we write starts with what we see through our own personal lens, but it’s exciting to me to focus that lens onto someone else’s world and be able to express the impact it has on me through the beauty of dramatic writing. Mining the authenticity only makes that lens larger and clearer.
Since that time, following the murder of George Floyd, the majority culture around the globe is thinking and acting more deeply about diversity, representation, inclusion and equity. Theater is no exception. The answer to the question of “who gets to write about what?” seems to be constantly shifting. Do you have any follow-up thoughts?
Christine Toy Johnson: These complicated conversations have definitely expanded, but I also think that there are nuances that are often missed. In an effort to come to a greater (and frankly, expedited) understanding of one another, things have strangely become more binary. It’s human nature to want to label things for quick comprehension. But in this “anti-discomfort” era we’re in (and with the erasure of critical thinking in many areas of our society), many things are now seen as “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong,” “canceled” or “verified.” As an extension of this, I have heard the authenticity discussion literally flipped on its face, with people from historically excluded communities expected to write only about their perceived specific cultural backgrounds, making all kinds of assumptions about a person’s lived experience and asserting preconceived notions about how we experience the world we’re in. I had a (very astute and forward thinking) producer of a large regional theater tell me last year that she loved this play but that she couldn’t justify how an Asian American woman wrote a play about a Jewish family — even though she knew that it was based on people I had grown up with.
Conversely, it’s often assumed (even subconsciously) that my Asian American gaze couldn’t possibly see anything but what a person who looks like me is “supposed” to see. This conversation has taken on many more layers since 2015! We are continuously attempting to peel them back on the podcast that I host for the Dramatists Guild (“The Dramatists Guild Presents: Talkback” on the Broadway Podcast Network). In Season 5 (premiering in October), we’re talking about “Igniting the Canon”; not canceling the existing one, but strategizing how we can reimagine it while also making room for new classics, told through new, additional lenses. All of this is to say: I firmly believe that we must always consider the nuances that are inherent in our journey to building a fully equitable, diverse, and inclusive landscape of storytelling. We might not always be able to define and understand everything at a quick glance, but we must always give our stories a chance to tell the truth.
Christine Toy Johnson is a Tony-honored, Obie, Rosetta LeNoire, JACL, and Asian American Arts Alliance award-winning writer, actor and advocate for inclusion. Her written work has been produced and/or developed by the Roundabout, Village Theatre, O’Neill Center, the Abingdon, Greater Boston Stage Company, Ars Nova, Barrow Group, Prospect Theatre, Weston Playhouse, National Women’s Theatre Festival, and more, and is included in the Library of Congress’ Asian Pacific American Playwrights Collection and published by Rowman & Littlefield, Applause Books, NoPassport Press and Smith & Kraus. She was awarded the First Annual Alvin Epstein Memorial Prize for Solo Performance for her new play with music, A Little More Blue. She is the co-director (with Bruce Johnson) and executive producer of the multiple award-winning documentary feature “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story” and executive producer/screenwriter/lyricist (with composer Michael Mott) of the movie musical short “Riding Out the Storm,” being released in October. She is treasurer of the Dramatists Guild and host of the Guild’s podcast “Talkback” on Broadway Podcast Network. She is a co-founder of AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition). Her associations include BMI and Writers Lab. She is a Sarah Lawrence College alum. As an actor, Johnson has appeared extensively on Broadway, in national tours, Off-Broadway, in regional theaters across the country, as well as nearly 100 television and film appearances.