Paul "Kwame" Johnson '77
Artistic consultant, former artistic director, and founder,
Youth Theatre Interactions
Kwame started a part-time job his freshman year.
He didn’t expect it to become a 30-year labor of love.
Foundations/Motivations: Grew up involved in theatre, founded theatre for kids
Experiences: Expanded his work in community theatre
Results: Enjoyed career as artistic director for youth theatre group
Theatre is in Kwame’s blood. His mother was a playwright. His brother was an actor. His neighbor, founder of Roundabout Theatre Company, let eight-year-old Kwame help install seats in the theatre’s first space, a supermarket basement. In high school, Kwame wrote, directed, and produced a play. By the time he was a junior at Sarah Lawrence, a part-time job at an after-school program inspired him to co-found a nonprofit theatre company for kids called Youth Theatre Interactions (YTI). When he won a fellowship toward graduate school, he stayed at Sarah Lawrence, not only for the educational approach, but also because he didn’t want to stray far from YTI.
B.A., Sarah Lawrence (theatre) (1974)
It’s been three decades since he’s been in the graduate program, but Kwame remembers well what he learned. With one professor, he discovered the structure of plays. With another, he learned to direct large numbers of people on stage. And with Shirley Kaplan, now director of the program, he came to understand the power of community theatre. “My implementation of Shirley’s concept of outreach and curriculum was played out at Youth Theatre Interactions,” Kwame says. For his final first-year project, he directed YTI kids in an on-campus production. For many of the young performers, it was the first time they set foot on a college campus.
For his master’s project, Kwame directed fellow students in a production of Malcolm X, which he describes as a “play in music, movement, dance, and poetry about the life of Malcolm X.” It played to a packed auditorium on both nights of the production.
Today, Youth Theatre Interactions draws about 200 students, ages 9 to 19, to free classes in ballet, West African dance, vocal music, drama, and more. Kwame proudly lists their achievements: performances at Lincoln Center, television appearances, awards galore. YTI students come to Sarah Lawrence to perform main-stage productions and for workshops with undergraduate and graduate students. Most rewarding, Kwame said, “is the smiles of the kids when they accomplish something artistic.” Kwame retired as YTI artistic director in 2004 to devote more time to his other passion: writing. Although his first book will explore mental health issues, he promises his next book will tell the story of YTI.
M.F.A., Theatre, Sarah Lawrence (1977)
- Artistic consultant, Youth Theatre Interactions (2004–present)
- Artistic director and founder, Youth Theatre Interactions (1973–2004)
Kwame is on the board of advisers of the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company in New York City, which offers choreographers of color a place to present their works and provides free continuing professional dance classes to young people. An avid hiker, he also raises funds for New York’s forests and preserves.