Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 3:38 PM on Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Writer, actress presents play about trauma, recovery from sexual assault


Devil in a Box

Written and performed by Sara Jane Johnson

WHEN 7:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE Pier One Theatre

Cost $10 general admission

For playwrights and actors, sometimes the work you try to do gets pushed aside by the work you have to do.

In October 2006, Sarah Jane Johnson, an actress and writer from New York City, tried to write a play about redheads. A redhead herself, she wanted to present a light-hearted short play about redheads for a festival of new works in New Orleans.

"It just wasn't any good at all," Johnson said.

So instead, Johnson wrote about sexual assault — the acquaintance rape that Johnson went through July 15, 2004, while visiting Paris. She met a Moroccan man at a café, and an evening that started out as a cultural interchange with several interesting foreign men turned into something nasty.

"I just took all my journal entries and performed them," Johnson said. "I thought it was going to be a one-time thing."

That short, 22-minute play evolved into a one-woman play, "The Devil in the Box," Johnson performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, at Pier One Theatre — "a fitting day for a meditation on trauma and recovery," Pier One director Lance Petersen said.

The rape, criminal and civil trials and Johnson's performances about it have occupied much of her life since 2004. The civil trial just ended last fall.

"Going to trial for so many years, putting my life on hold, not being able to pursue my dreams — I really wanted to follow through regardless what the outcome was," Johnson said.

Now 31, Johnson received a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a master of fine arts from Lousiana State University's professional actor training program. It was through her mentor, performance artist Jose Torres-Tama, that Johnson first came to Homer. Johnson opened for Torres-Tama when he toured Alaska doing his show about Hurricane Katrina, "Cone of Uncertainity," performed at Bunnell Street Arts Center in 2009. Torres-Tama encouraged her to develop her play.

"Well, just outright pushing," she said.

Johnson returned to Kachemak Bay this summer. Like many hard working New York actors, she supplements her income in the time honored tradition of waiting on tables. This summer, Johnson worked at The Saltry in Halibut Cove.

"The Devil in the Box" uses monologue, movement, statistics and poetry to tell Johnson's story — and the story of others affected by emotional trauma.

"It goes back and forth between the events leading up to the assault, flashing back to the trial and also the emotional journey I've taken, allowing both pieces to be a universal voice for women and survivors," Johnson said.

Johnson has performed "The Devil in the Box" and its earlier version at theater festivals, Take Back the Night events and for the End the Violence Campaign. She also speaks for Campus Outreach Services, doing presentations for incoming first-year college students.

Sometimes people who see her play react strongly, Johnson said. At one performance a woman in her 60s came up to her and told Johnson she had been raped and that she had never told anyone about it.

"She thanked me for telling her story," Johnson said. "Your words are my words," the woman told her.

That's the kind of response she hopes for, Johnson said.

"I really hope that I can create and continue a conversation I feel is important, and also give strength and an outlet, a common bond to other survivors," she said.

After Sunday's performance, Johnson will stay for a "talk back," a time afterwards to discuss the show. Representatives from South Peninsula Haven House, Homer's advocacy center for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, will attend to assist in the discussion if needed. Haven House director Peg Coleman said people affected by sexual assault also can call its 24-hour Crisis Line at 235-8493 to talk.

"We're here and available," Coleman said. "It's anonymous. People can explore their options."

"I certainly have gained so much strength and support from doing this, and hope I've given so much more than I've received," Johnson said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.