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McKinley Johnson's new musical focuses on largely forgotten Civil Rights leader

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

McKinley Johnson, lecturer in fashion design and merchandising—and an active playwright and costume designer in his "spare" time—is in the thick of rehearsals for a musical he wrote about the life of influential but largely forgotten Civil Rights political strategist Bayard Rustin. The musical, Eye of the Storm, will be presented at Chicago's eta Creative Arts Foundation from February 9 through March 11. 

 A Jeff Award nominee, McKinley has written nine musicals and done work at Chicago area theaters including Goodman Theatre, Black Ensemble Theatre, and the Open Door Repertory in Oak Park. His productions explore the lesser known chapters of black history, including Train is Comin', which tells the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of former slaves who embarked on a concert tour in the late 1800s to save historically black Fisk University in Nashville from bankruptcy. That production was awarded "Best Musical" by the Black Theatre Alliance. A professional costume designer, tailor and patternmaker, McKinley has taught in Dominican University's fashion program since 1999. 

McKinley's interest in the theater was sparked by the rousing gospel tunes and spirituals that his mother played on the piano when he was a child. An ensuing love of music and storytelling eventually led him to writing musicals. It's a uniquely powerful genre, he believes, for moving and challenging audiences. 

"Musicals have a way of touching people and getting them to listen to a story or a point of view in a way they might not be open to if they were just watching a regular play. Take for instance the musical I'm presently working on about Bayard Rustin, who put together the 1963 March on Washington. He influenced Dr. King to adopt the nonviolent movement. He was the one who put together the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But he is not well known because he was gay. He was marginalized in the movement," said McKinley.

The musical is being produced by a black theater company on the South Side of Chicago, which Johnson finds to be fitting, if somewhat ironic. 

"The black community oftentimes still has issues accepting those who are gay. It might not be as bad as it used to be, but it still has its issues. I'm hoping the music helps people to embrace the story of Bayard Rustin and not overlook his contributions, which really built the foundation of the rights we have and the way we're able to live now," he said.

McKinley grew up in Smithfield, Virginia, in a house full of music. His mother was a music teacher and served as the church pianist. She worked with choirs and embraced gospel music, classical music and spirituals. 

"Thankfully, I had parents who, for all five of us, whatever interest we showed in things they would push us in that area. I had a brother who loved music and so they got him music lessons. Another brother is a dancer. A sister is an artist, a painter," he said. 

McKinley came to Chicago to study theater at graduate school. His thesis project explored effective ways for witnessing Christianity through comedy. He discovered that musicals seemed to fit with what he was studying. 

"My church pastor asked me to write a sketch one Sunday about the beginnings of gospel music and Thomas Andrew Dorsey, who is regarded as the father of black gospel. As I was researching Dorsey's life I said, 'Gosh, I could write a musical about this.' That became my first musical, Georgia Tom, in 1994. And I've been writing musicals ever since," he said. 

McKinley has sewn since he was about 8 or 9 years old. He explains that theater and fashion, sewing and costuming are like putting puzzle pieces together, something he has always enjoyed. 

"When you start out with a garment, you've got to have a visual in your mind of what you want it to look like and then you have to figure out how to actually make the pattern, how to sew it together, how to fit it. When you're writing a play, you're writing about a character. How do you create the whole story? What is this character going to do? What is that character going to do? What's the setting? What is the theme? All of those pieces, you're kind of creating something out of nothing," he said.

As a writer, McKinley is drawn to characters whose faith helps them overcome obstacles. For example, Thomas Dorsey had to overcome prejudice within the black church against gospel music. Bayard Rustin had to hide his gay identity and face the rejection of the very people he was trying to help. 

"That's what working on these musicals has taught me. You have to keep doing, you have to stay engaged, even when things go poorly. But whatever that mission is that you've been given, you really have to stick to that even when it looks as though you can't or it will never succeed. And it's knowing you should never take yourself down even though the world takes you down. The world can have its opinion, but you have to have that inner strength in spite of it all to keep going," he said. 

Eye of the Storm will be presented at eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue. For more information, contact the theater at