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Local

The end of his tour: Chicago playwright, teacher, Dixon native succumbs to cancer

Joel Drake Johnson
Joel Drake Johnson

CHICAGO – Dixon lost a famous playwright Saturday.

Chicago-based Joel Drake Johnson, 70, formerly of Dixon and Nachusa, died after an extended battle with cancer.

Johnson was a teacher for more than 2 decades and retired in 2005 to focus on his writing. His work was featured at several Chicago theaters and also was produced in New York City and Los Angeles, among others.

He taught English and drama at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire from 1985 to 2005, helping expand theater classes and form a playwrights club for students. A point of pride was when three of his students won a national youth playwriting contest in 2002.

“I don’t think anything has meant as much as when those three kids won their awards,” he said at the time.

Johnson earned degrees at Illinois State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and also taught playwriting at Northwestern and DePaul universities.

His plays included “Four Places,” which was revived last year by The Den Theatre in Chicago, “The End of the Tour,” “The Fall to Earth,” and “Before My Eyes,” “The Boys’ Room” and “Rasheeda Speaking,” which played off-Broadway under the direction of “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon.

His teleplay “A Moment of Rage” was nominated for an Emmy, while “The Fall to Earth,” performed at the famed Steppenwolf Theater and featuring Tony Award-winner Rondi Reed, a fellow Dixonite, won a 2004 Jeff Award.

In fact, he was nominated five 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.

“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,” Johnson had said.

He also was one of the members of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Ensemble; the theater recently paid tribute to him on social media:

“Joel was an award-winning, internationally produced playwright and teacher. More importantly, he was a wonderful person, and his presence brought joy to so many of his students and collaborators. He leaves behind a large theater family who will dearly miss him.”

He and his husband, Dr. Larry B. Salzmann, were married 20 years and divided their time between their homes in Chicago and New Buffalo, Michigan.

He also is survived by his brothers, Ray of Rock Falls and John of Pittsburgh and his sister, Anne LeRette of Dixon.

Click here to read Johnson’s obituary.

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