Playwright JaJuan Turner knows the struggle. A courier by day for Mercy Medical Center, Turner goes home and writes four hours daily in a room dubbed “the lab.” He’s 80% deaf and the hearing aids he needs exceed his budget.
Artistic sinecures and safeguards elude him: no fancy university post, no agent, no grants. He’s directing and self-funding his play, Secrets, through TURNERMAN productions and he’s marvelously energetic. He turns brief phone interviews into Homeric tales of striving, set between two post-industrial cities, and featuring a bit sitcom star as a sometime nemesis. If even half the verve Turner musters in conversation comes through onstage, you should drop twenty bucks and see his play.
Candid and confident
“I’m out here. I’m pushing,” Turner says. “It don’t stop until the casket drop.” The fortysomething father of three is effusively candid, brimful of confidence, and unthrifty with gripes. His latest play traces the fallout of infidelity over a fractious long weekend in Toledo. Bella, a preacher’s wife takes advantage of her husband Mitchell’s absence to shack up with Mitchell’s brother, Malik. There’s a wisecracking teen, political themes, and a message befitting a Sunday morning conclusion. But before that, it’s bumpy.
“It’s sexy and seductive. You’re gonna get your sensation, your titillation,” promises Turner. “It’s not for children.” Turner hails from Flint, Michigan. Growing up, he read Judy Blume and drafted Blume-ian novels. After graduation, he began acting and writing screenplays inspired by 90s auteurs Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Turner witnessed Flint’s auto industry decline, but he also saw rappers like The Dayton Family and MC Breed boost Flint Town to a national level, charting a path other local artists might follow.
Then came Carl Payne.
Reclaiming his shine
Believing he’d landed a starring role in a traveling theater company, Turner was bamboozled into being the understudy of Carl Anthony Payne II, aka “Cole” from Martin.
“It burned me so bad,” Turner says. But he recovered and wrote his first play, The Game of Life. So if Payne II were standing before him now… “Hah. I would say: hey, I’m not mad. You did steal my shine. But, actually, it’s a blessing.”
Eventually, family-ties, car trouble, and a layoff landed Turner in the Glass City; he loves Toledo but sees its untapped potential. Since Turner moved, his hometown’s water crisis turned Flint into shorthand for total civic abandonment; a knowledge of how things could fall charges Turner’s disregard for “fluff” in art and his hopes for Toledo.
“Toledo’s definitely not Flint. It’s an upgrade. But it is what you make of it. It could be greater, if we made it greater.”
As a black artist, Turner worries about how blackness can become its own pigeonholing genre.
“Me being an African-American artist, a black talent, people always want to compare me to Tyler Perry. I’m just JaJuan Turner.”
Cast locally, Secrets stars Chara, Da’jzhanae Smith, Jeremiah Bishop, Jerrell Mayo, Lisa Flynn, Patrick Meals, and JaJuan’s wife and co-producer, Kesha Turner.
“They’re as talented a cast as I’ve ever seen…maybe not the Warriors, but they’re like the old school Cavaliers that won the championship.”
Turner claims he doesn’t need fame, but he’ll take fortune. Turner’s lived long enough to let his dreams die, watch manuscripts collect dust. But on August 4, the dream revives. If this sally doesn’t land, he’ll try again. In the meantime, hospitals need couriering and Mr. Turner’s lab awaits.
“If something’s in you, you gotta bring it out or you’ll be unfilled. And if you’re waiting for someone to do it for you…you might as well be waiting for Jesus to come back.” $20.
7pm | Saturday, August 4
Collingwood Arts Center | 2413 Collingwood Blvd
419-244-2787 | collingwoodartscenter.org