It’s not too much of a stretch to talk to playwright JaJuan Turner and think that you might be talking to a young Tyler Perry. After all, Turner, at the age of 42, has made a cottage industry of slowly creating the same kind of buzz Perry was known for in his early years as a struggling writer for Atlanta stages in the early ’90s.
And while Tyler Perry started writing as therapy in response to well-documented familial problems, JaJuan Turner began his career as a reaction to the violence around him in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.
In an effort to avoid the mean streets and the lifestyle that had claimed many of his peers, JaJuan, whose journey led him from Flint to Toledo, began to write short stories as a youngster in grade school. By his own accounts a “big reader,” he pushed to get his stories published, without much success.
The road to a burgeoning theatre career was not without similar obstacles. His first experience was being cast (or so he was told by the producers) in the lead role in a production of a play traveling what is known as “the urban theatre circuit.” The play was called Wake Up, and after all the rehearsals and the phone calls to relatives and friends that he was doing this big play which was paying him a decent wage, Turner discovered that he was only an understudy for the actor (Carl Payne, aka “Cockroach” on the old Cosby Show) who would be playing the part when he joined the cast a month before opening.
Despite the disappointment, Turner discovered that he had an inherent love of theater. He formed a production company, New Life Productions, and wrote his first play, The Game of Life, in 1992. While not a monster success, the effort was encouraging enough for him to continue tweaking Life while beginning to write other plays. “The [writing/producing] experience was my first realization that I could do this,” he says.
A 3-year sidetrack took him to Northern California with his girlfriend and their baby, where he discovered a true freedom, not just in his creativity, but in all facets of his life viewpoint. It was an eye-opening time in his life and Turner regrets leaving Oakland, where he was living, but family obligations called him back to Flint.
Shifting gears into Toledo
On New Year's Day in 1997 the hand of fate reached out to Turner yet again when he was traveling north on 75 from central Ohio after visiting a friend. As he was about to exit Ohio, going through Toledo on his way to Michigan, his transmission gave out and he was stranded here while he got the money together to pay for repair work. But a funny thing happened while his car was in the shop — he decided he really liked Toledo, and so he moved to the Glass City.
Since moving, he has self-produced several plays under his new company, Turnerman Productions, including The Game of Life at the Ohio Theatre and his upcoming premiere in August of Captivated at the Maumee Indoor Theatre, co-produced by Nikesha Russell (the first time he’s worked with a producing collaborator). Captivated is so early on in production that the project does not even have a web page, but TCP will report on the project as it comes closer to fruition.
Beyond his passion and perseverance, what really separates him from other self-driven young theater impresarios is that he's nearly deaf. It's hard enough to create and sustain a theater with two ears with an art form that requires a sense of hearing, but to be able to write, produce and direct while only hearing muffled, distant voices is a feat of Beethoven-like focus.
To his credit, Turner makes no big deal about what others might see as a hindrance. So when a question is posed about his ability to keep up with the demands of a theater and actors with his limited ability to hear, he studies the question in the air above, and answers with the polish and confidence of a man who is not about to let go of his dreams just because his eardrums aren't cooperating.
“If I didn't do this,” he says, “I wouldn't be JaJuan Turner.”
Turner can be contacted at 419-490-4214.