December 19, 2018
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Performer grapples with racism here: ‘I don’t feel like a Mainer. I wish I did.’

PORTLAND, Maine — René Johnson’s one-woman, interactive storytelling show is not a free ride. Johnson challenges the audience to speak to strangers in the room. She has them gaze in each other’s eyes in silence. She asks them personal questions.

Johnson expects the audience to participate and pull its own weight.

It’s the least they can do while she unravels harrowing and intimate details of her life. Through multiple characters, dance and song, she weaves a story of escaping South African apartheid, childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, teenage self-harm and coming to terms with Maine’s own racism.

Johnson, 33, will perform her show three times this weekend at Bright Star World Dance studio on High Street.

She first devised the piece during a summer program at the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris in 2013. Since then, Johnson has performed it dozens of times but it’s never the same. She’s constantly revising it as her life, and outlook on the world, shifts and grows.

The show is titled “Geel,” the Dutch word for yellow, but it would spoil things to explain too much.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Performer Rene Johnson sings a gospel song while rehearsing her one-woman show "Geel" in Portland Wednesday night. The show explores Johnson's complicated relationship with Maine and childhood abuse suffered at the hands of her mother.

It’s not a performance for the faint-hearted. Johnson screams, swears and brings herself to tears. She also dances and sings with soul and grace. At times, she lets Nina Simone songs take over where her own words fail her.

In the powerful second half of the show, she reenacts her mother beating her and her twin brother. Johnson also talks about channeling the of intense pain and beauty of ballet into a form of self-harm starting at the age of nine. It culminates in a wrenching scene of her running through the West End after her mother throws her out of the house when she gets her first period.

Q: Have you always been a performer?

A: I’ve always had a big, big personality. I’ve always had a loud mouth. I’ve used it, always, mostly because I felt like I wasn’t being seen.

Q: Were you not seen because you’re small or because you’re a woman?

A: Because I was a black child, a black female child.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rene Johnson performs a ballet exercise while rehearsing her one-woman show "Geel" in Portland Wednesday night. The show explores Johnson's complicated relationship with Maine and childhood abuse suffered at the hands of her mother.

Q: You came to Portland from Johannesburg, South Africa in 1991. What was that like?

A: I was six-and-a-half. It was dope. America was dope. Literally, the place was paved in gold. We came as refugees. Apartheid was the thing in South Africa at the time and we were suffering from that. We could have ended up in Detroit. We could have ended up in Compton. We could have ended up in Texas but we ended up here, and this place is magic.

Q: You’ve been an accidental Mainer for 27 years now. Given Mainers’ general skepticism towards “people from away,” do you feel like a Mainer?

A: Some days I do. Some days I’m like, “Yes, I’m totally a Mainer.” But mostly, no. Mostly, I feel like a person trying really hard to be a Mainer. Because there’s a thing you have to be, to be a Mainer. And I’m trying to uncondition myself from that right now. That’s part of what this show is. It’s me being able to reflect on what it means to be a person, what it means to be a René, what it means to be a daughter, what it means to be a sister, what it means to be a Mainer, what it means to be black. I don’t feel like a Mainer. I wish I did. And then there are some days when I’m like, “No, I don’t.”

Q: You came to the United States to escape Apartheid but you’ve said you experienced your share of racism right here, in Portland. So much so, you’re thinking of leaving. Tell me about that.

A: I’ve left, I’ve come back. I’ve left, I’ve come back again. I went away and people treated me so much better — white people, specifically. I said, “I am angry at you, Maine — I am so angry at you and I’m going to do something with that anger because this is unreal.”

Then, I started this [show].

In 2014, I went away for a really long time and the way that white people treated me felt so strange. It felt odd because they were being kind without me having to prove anything, not my intellect, not my savvy. Nothing.

[It made me realize] I lived in this space, here, where white people make me prove everything about me, all the time, since I was a child.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Performer Rene Johnson raises her first in anger while rehearsing her one-woman show "Geel" in Portland Wednesday night. The show explores Johnson's complicated relationship with Maine and childhood abuse suffered at the hands of her mother.

Q: One experience you described earlier was when a potential employer here once denied you a job because you were wearing an African headwrap?

A: And then he says, “But I do want you to know, I’m wonderfully surprised to find out that this resumé belonged to a woman of color. Well done.”

So, I’m like, “I hate you, Maine. I hate you so much.”

Q: And it wasn’t long after that when you started putting this show together during an extended summer program at the Celebration Barn Theater?

A: Yes. [This year] I’m going back for my fifth year. Every time I go back I get a chance to live here [in Portland] for six months, do something with this anger and then go back to the barn and put that shit down.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rene Johnson dances to a Nina Simone song while rehearsing her one-woman show "Geel" in Portland Wednesday night. The show explores Johnson's complicated relationship with Maine and childhood abuse suffered at the hands of her mother.

Q: It’s fair to say this show comes straight from your love/hate relationship with Maine?

A: Yeah, with Maine and trauma. Those are the two things — my complicated relationship with being a black child who came to Maine, and being a young woman who was severely abused by her mother. This show is my version of not lying to myself and trying really hard to undo what this place is doing to me.

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