Bertolt Brecht configured — along with others — the concept of Epic Theater. He wanted theater patrons to not only attend the theater but experience it so they critically understood the conveyed concepts and carried those lessons with them beyond the boundaries of the theater house, so when a class of eighteen 8th grade students at Louise S. McGehee school scattered computers around class tables and organized their questions in preparation to interview nine-year-old actress Ayvah Johnson, there was an Epic feel in the school classroom.
Ayvah Johnson, who will be performing as young Anna Mae (aka young Tina Turner) in the upcoming Tina Turner Musical at the Saenger Theater (opening is Tuesday, February 7), appeared Zoom-screen ready with a smile and a “Let’s do this” attitude, which should come as no surprise since Ayvah started acting before some kids are even speaking. She recalled how at the age of four she was performing “in maybe a theater of 200 people,” and even though she is now performing “for thousands of people,” 200 was a lot for a four-year-old. “I kept telling myself that I had to say my line,” she shared with 18 sets of engaged ears who laughed when she confessed, “I thought I was going to going cry on stage,” and followed it up with a sigh when she said, “but I didn’t. I said my line, and I was so proud of myself.” When Ayvah clapped her hands to emphasize the spark that 200-audience experience set off in her acting career, she thundered an open feel in the classroom.
Francois, an 8th grader who played various roles in the McGehee musical performance of Moana, jumped right in and asked Ayvah how she overcomes her nerves. “It helps being in a role,” Ayvah said, and then dove into a deeply philosophical observation about how, “If I was telling a story about myself, I’d be more nervous because people would be learning about me and evaluating me, but when I play a role, they’re looking at my performance.” The nods of understanding from all the girls segued right into the very direct and personal question of, “You live in Slidell, right?” Ayvah smiled, said, “yes,” and then became ecstatic when she learned that all the girls talking with her were sitting in a nestled part of McGehee’s open campus only 32 miles away from her.
“Wait, you all are in New Orleans?” Ayvah asked, and after an expounding connective energy passed through the fourth wall of the Zoom screen, 8th grader Adler cleared her throat and said, “So if you were going to bring Tina Turner to Slidell, what would you show her?”
The question didn’t take Ayvah more than a second to answer. “I would show her my house. I would want her to meet my family. I have a dog, too, so I’d want her to meet my dog.” Ayvah’s desire to show Tina how those living in the south are born into communities and also build communities continued when she said, “And the next place I’d bring her would be my church. I would want her to be part of and see the community we have there.”
As the conversation flowed easily with questions about schedules and “how in the world do you balance performances, practices, and homework?” the teachers in the room, including the Head of McGehee Middle School, Jessica Holl, proudly observed the community being built right before their eyes. They saw worlds coming together as the 8th grade students listened intently as Ayvah explained how she loves playing young Tina Turner because, “Tina brings a confidence and courage with her” from when she’s little into her adulthood. “She knows she can do anything that she sets her mind to,” and that’s not something unique only to Tina. As Ayvah shared with the 8th grade girls, “I think I also take courage and confidence with me as I grow up. I am proving my worth because there’s been a few times I’ve been brought down about being a performer and doing what I love. It’s not always easy, but I keep going no matter what.”
The difference, however, is that Ayvah doesn’t just “keep going” for herself, and that was obvious when she flipped the script on the interview and asked, “Can I ask all of you some questions?” She changed the traditions of an interview, which — conversationally speaking — usually follows a one-way street, and it was a lesson that those observing this interaction would take with them in the most Brechtian-way. This interview and Ayvah’s spirit was about connection, community, and learning from each other. If Brecht could see it, he probably would have called it Epic, and we are pretty sure that Ayvah is going to bring that energy to every step she makes playing the young Tina Turner.
The Tina Turn Musical will be at The Saenger Theater from Tuesday, February 7 through Sunday, February 12, and you can see Ayvah Johnson act as young Anna Mae in all performances. We would love to give a huge thank you to Ayvah Johnson, Broadway in New Orleans, Louise S. McGehee School, Jessica Holl, and all of the 8th grade girls for showing that the future is female, and that future looks bright.