Johnson is the lead character in the newest production from Kenan Theatre Company, which is taking viewers back to the days of World War I through its production of “Johnny Johnson.” Written by UNC alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Green, the musical aims to transfer the experiences of pain, violence, morals and mental health to the audience. But above all, “Johnny Johnson” retains hope.
“It brings to relevance a lot of the issues that people of that time had to deal with back then,” said sophomore Andrew Plotnikov, who plays Johnson.
Serena Ebhardt, director of the musical, graduated from UNC in 1988. She believes that while the musical is about WWI, it is still relatable.
“It’s essentially any man’s struggle with keeping their own sense of self and balance in a world that’s constantly throwing things at us,” she said.
Ebhardt said the actors have done a splendid job of updating the material of the musical to contemporary times without changing it. To her, the musical is about honoring the military, the University and the playwright’s progressive thinking.
“I feel like Paul Green is trying to explain PTSD at a time when PTSD was not really acknowledged by the greater public,” said sophomore Annie Keller, who plays Minny Belle Tompkins. “We have come so far today in acknowledging veterans and giving them the help they need, but back then, in the time of WWI, very little was known about the effects of war and violence.”
As part of honoring those who have come before them, the cast and crew made a trip to visit Paul Green Jr., son of the playwright. Ebhardt said Paul Green Jr. had tears of gratitude in his eyes when speaking about the musical. The cast also placed sentimental stones on Paul Green’s grave at the cemetery on campus.
The musical is unique in that the entire backdrop is white and various images are projected onto the set to create scenery. The cast then uses the scenery to reenact war scenes and display war propaganda and images from WWI.
Twelve musicians will play live music written by Kurt Weill, who wrote the music to parallel the political situation of WWI. It begins with an Austrian waltz to represent Austrian-Hungarian relations and continues to a Paris tango, incorporating German cabaret influences and a cowboy song.
This musical is part of the campus-wide program “A Year-Long Conversation: World War I — The Legacy.” Senior Jackson Bloom, producer of “Johnny Johnson,” believes it is important to talk about WWI because its history does not receive the same attention as WWII.
Ebhardt said she believes this musical is about more than just the story.
“It is about appreciating what has gone before so that we can have now. I know for a fact that I would not have the freedom to be an actress, a director, an artist, had it not been for our veterans.”