Plain Dealer article becomes triumphant play in CPT’s “Johanna: Facing Forward”
The tension was visible during a court scene onstage in Cleveland Public Theatre’s latest show, Johanna: Facing Forward. Johanna Orozco (actress Tania Benites) faced ex-boyfriend Juan Ruiz (Jason Estremera) and made him look her in the eye. After surviving a shotgun wound to the face, sexual assault and psychological abuse, Johanna stared the young boy down.
“You can’t heal anyone who doesn’t want to be healed,” she said.
But, unlike Juan, Johanna wanted to be healed after facing endless trauma, only at the age of 17 years old. The play, based off of the 2007 Cleveland Plain Dealer article by Rachel Dissell, explored the often-undercovered world of domestic violence in teenage relationships.
Even Dissell was brought in as a character early on in the play. Dissell (Courtney Brown) was a moral-focused reporter who would do anything to find a real story, one that would evoke change in the city she loved.
One could argue that Johanna: Facing Forward was less about the title character and more about Dissell.
However, this raised a solid point in the journalism world. Was Johanna, a 17-year-old victim of abuse, going to be noticed if Dissell hadn’t covered her story with as much force as she had? Would teen domestic violence be seen through a different light? Would any change have occurred?
Who knows. But the two women were both heroes. The play honored them both with a bit of dialogue towards the end:
“You did it,” the editor-in-chief (Stuart Hoffman) said to Dissell, congratulating her on her successful story.
“No. Jojo did it,” said a smiling Dissell, facing Johanna.
The play’s props were simple—just a few rolling pieces of furniture and two tall walls. The costumes virtually never changed, unless an actor played more than one character. However, from a technical aspect, the lighting in CPT’s latest show was what brought the stage to life.
Projected onto the two walls was anything the play needed to show, but didn’t have the time or space. This included translations for Spanish dialogue, photos of the setting, and various colors to invoke the emotional nature of the play. They even broke out a disco ball for a colorful prom scene.
Juan was slightly stiff during a scene where he beat Johanna, clearly not hitting her on the stage. When Dissell handed Juanita Orozco (Blanca Salva) a tissue, it wasn’t clear up until that point that she had been crying. After Wosbely Orozco (Gilberto Pena) gave Johanna a prom dress, he awkwardly smiled into the spotlight for what felt like minutes until the light turned off.
These were the rare moments that reminded you this play was new (brand new actually, the world premiere), and that the theatre company was local. Surprisingly, all of these moments brought an air of authenticity to CPT’s production.
It seemed at home in the small theater on Detroit Road, performed in front of a tightly-packed audience.
At the heart of “Johanna: Facing Forward” were topics that hit close to home, and not just geographically. The most important theme was justice, and not necessarily legal justice. (They made this clear with a few pro-marijuana quips throughout the play.) It was basic morality.
Just like Dissell’s article proved eight years ago, horrible things can happen to innocent people. Sometimes the bad guy doesn’t get entirely what he deserves. But, just as Dissell ended her groundbreaking work, sometimes “[it’s] time to move on.”