DIXON – Chicago-based playwright, and former resident of Nachusa and Dixon, Joel Drake Johnson, died on January 11 after an extended battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.
Joel got his start as a writer at Chicago’s critically acclaimed Econo-Art Theater, which produced such plays as “Beautiful Dreamer” and “A Slim and Crooked Genius.” “As the Beaver,” was a critical and popular hit for Chicago’s Zebra Crossing Theater. His teleplay “A Moment of Rage” (co-written with VG ensemble member John Logan) was nominated for an Emmy award. Joel won Illinois Arts Council grants for “Blind Hearts,” “The Fall to Earth,” and “A Blue Moon,” which was first produced at Chicago Dramatists and also Jeff-nominated for best new work.
Joel’s relationship with Steppenwolf Theater began in 2004 with the Jeff Award winning production of “The Fall to Earth” featuring Tony Award winner Rondi Reed. “The Fall to Earth” was published by Broadway Play Publishing.
Steppenwolf subsequently commissioned Johnson to write “A Blameless Life and Tranquillity Woods,” which they produced in the summer of 2005 and 2007. “The Fall to Earth” was later produced by the Penguin Repertory Theatre, featuring Tony award winner Michele Pawk and directed by Joe Brancato.
Joel was one of the members of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Ensemble. The critically acclaimed, Jeff-nominated, “Four Places,” was produced by Victory Gardens in the spring of 2008 and was published by Northwestern University Press. It was subsequently produced in LA by The Rogue Machine Theatre, where under the direction of Robin Larsen and featuring Tony nominee, Roxanne Hart, it garnered critical acclaim that included five Ovation Award nominations, four nominations (including best play) from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, and a Garland Award for Best New Play. “Four Places” was recently revived in 2019 in a production by the Den Theatre Company. His earlier works at VG, “Before My Eyes” and “The End of the Tour,” were also Jeff-nominated for Best New Play. “The End of the Tour” was chosen for inclusion in the anthology “New Plays From Chicago” and was also published by Broadway Play Publishing. Other plays at Victory Gardens included “A Guide for the Perplexed” and “The Boys’ Room.”
His play, “Rasheeda Speaking” (originally directed by Sandy Shinner, produced by Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre and nominated for best play by the Jefferson Committee) opened in New York City at The Signature Theatre as part of The New Group’s 2014-15 season. Under the direction of Tony and Emmy Award Winner, Cynthia Nixon, it featured two-time Oscar Winner, Dianne Wiest and Tony Award Winner, Tonya Pinkins as well as Darren Goldstein (“The Affair”) and Patricia Conolly (ensemble member/Guthrie Theater and Stratford Festival). “Rasheeda” was subsequently nominated for best new off-Broadway play by the The Outer Critics Circle and filmed by WNET New York/East Coast. In 2018, “Rasheeda Speaking” received its highly acclaimed European premiere at London’s Trafalgar Studios, under the direction of Jonathan O’Boyle and featuring Elizabeth Berrington and Tanya Moodie.
Joel was nominated 5 times for Best New Play by Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award Committee and he won the Chicago Dramatist’s Marquee Award for his overall playwrighting career.
Joel received his B.A. in English (Education) from Illinois State University in 1972. He received an M.F.A. in Theater (Directing Emphasis) from the University of Illinois in 1978.
Joel taught English and Drama at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire for over 20 years before happily retiring to concentrate on his writing. While at Stevenson, he was instrumental in the expansion of the school’s theatre curriculum. Johnson also helped budding student-playwrights at Stevenson by developing the TBA Playwrights Club. In 2002, three of his students were winners in a national youth playwriting contest. “I don’t think anything has meant as much as when those three kids won their awards,” he said, prior to his retirement from Stevenson in 2005. He subsequently taught playwriting at both Northwestern and DePaul universities. He, and his husband, Larry, divided their time between their homes in Chicago and New Buffalo, Michigan.
Joel was preceded in death by his parents, Ray and Henrietta (Burwell) Johnson, and a sister, Jan Johnson, all of Dixon, Illinois. He is survived by his devoted husband of 20 years, Dr. Larry B. Salzmann; his brother, Ray Johnson (Becky Donoho) of Rock Falls; brother, John of Pittsburgh, PA; and, sister, Anne Lerette (Nate) of Dixon, Illinois. He also leaves behind his large theater family who will dearly miss him. A celebration of Joel’s life will take place in Chicago in the spring.
Joel once said, “I am interested in creating stories with characters who, despite their flaws, their bad decisions, their selfish inhibitions, their awkward/comic interactions and tragic setbacks, push themselves on to an enlightened understanding of their place in the world.”
Joel, as a man, a teacher, and an artist, helped all of us to have a more enlightened understanding of the world.
Arrangements were completed by Purley Cremations of Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Donations in Joel’s memory may be sent to the Alzheimer’s Foundation.