Who would you trust to tell your story?
That was the question that Cleveland activist Johanna Orozco-Fraser and journalist Rachel Dissell had to contemplate when playwright and director Tlaloc Rivas contacted them. His first email, sent on New Year’s Day 2014, said in part:
Your story came to my attention years ago. As you know, [Johanna’s] story is an inspiration to many Latinos and young women across the country.
I share your belief that stories and storytelling have the potential for social change. The plays I create aim to tell stories that provoke a conversation about important subjects between artists and audiences. I believe that Johanna’s story has that potential.
As it happens, I will be traveling to Cleveland [soon]… I’d like to talk with you about whether a play inspired by your articles can happen.
The three met just a couple of weeks later. Orozco-Fraser, who survived a near-fatal attack by her ex-boyfriend and became a leading advocate for change in Ohio’s domestic violence laws, had become lasting friends with Dissell, a Plain Dealer reporter, as Rachel wrote a series of articles chronicling Johanna’s recovery in 2007. Both friends decided that Rivas deserved their trust. They gave their blessing to his effort to bring their story to the stage.
Just hours later, CPT Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan offered the project a home at this theatre. As Rivas began to shape the script, Orozco-Fraser and Dissell became treasured advisors and collaborators on this new telling of the story.
Dissell lives in Cleveland, Rivas in Iowa City IA and Pittsburgh PA, and Orozco-Fraser was preparing for a move across the globe from Cleveland to Germany when July 2014 brought the opportunity for the three collaborators to sit down face to face again with CPT leaders and staff. Over coffee at Gypsy Bean, with Dissell’s and Orozco-Fraser’s young children charming the adults at the table, the vision of the project continued to take shape. That vision vaulted up to a new level when the group walked over to see CPT’s Gordon Square Theatre, where the production would be mounted.
By November 2014 the play’s script was nearly finished. Rivas invited Orozco-Fraser and Dissell to read the work in progress and share their thoughts. Like any writer, he wanted to be sure his readers knew they were not looking at a finished product so he explained,
Like all plays, this will be the first of many drafts, edits and revisions I will be making before we begin rehearsals in April. This has already been an incredible journey for me as a writer. I can’t wait to share your story through the power of theater.
Dissell responded comfortingly, “I am so excited to read what you’ve created. I totally understand that this is a first draft of many… I’m sure you did a wonderful job!”
In January 2015 Orozco-Fraser conferred with Rivas by Skype before reading the play. Following their conversation Rivas wrote to her, “As you read the play, you notice that I conflated (combined) events and characters. The reason for this is practical: we have to have a small cast.” As Orozco-Fraser had performed in plays herself in her youth, she was well prepared to deal with the practical realities as the play based on her life took shape.
Dissell offered much very useful feedback as she read the following drafts of the play. In January she wrote to Rivas,
Thanks you so much for sharing this. I had to wait for some quiet time to digest it all at once. I love the scene transitions that help the story flow from one scene to the next… Of course, it was a bit overwhelming emotionally to read and kind of embarrassing to feel like a character. I think you took a lot of care with the dialogue and I do appreciate that. You’ve done a lot to capture Jojo’s spirit and not to overly simplify the complicated emotions and issues that went into telling this story.
Following that encouragement, she volunteered information about the inner workings of a newsroom and the working relationship between a reporter and her editor, the timeline of events especially concerning Juan Ruiz’s arrest and trial, and the story of how a troubled moment in her own adolescence led to her finding her voice as a journalist.
Knowing that Rivas had no direct experience of the pressures of a journalist’s job, Dissell took the time to explain how on every story – no matter how much it might tug on a writer’s heartstrings or engage his or her most powerful opinions – the writer has to fulfill a journalist’s core duties. These include rigorous fact checking, patiently gathering information from many diverse sources, and composing his or her own observations on elements of a story that might represent several different – even conflicting – points of view.
Those principles drove Dissell’s work on the Plain Dealer series, even though the stories were told from Johanna’s perspective. Dissell discussed those responsibilities with Orozco-Fraser as she worked on telling her story in 2007, and shared them with Rivas as he undertook the same task years later. In an email Dissell wrote,
One thing I told Jojo again and again was that this was her story — I was just there to help her tell it. That is not traditionally how it is done in journalism and I knew and grappled with that a bit. But she had so much power taken from her in the rape and shooting that control over her story was important to her healing. We did not want her to feel taken advantage of. She was scared. But she always seemed to sense that speaking out would help others. The only thing she ever asked of me is that the story be true.
I learned more from her than I ever thought I would, things that have stuck with me as a journalist and a person. Watching actual resilience up close is amazing. I think one of the greatest things for me is that her resilience and forward movement didn’t end with the story ending. She didn’t fall off a cliff when the attention faded. She continued to push forward and mature and help others in such a selfless and authentic way.
Orozco-Fraser and Rivas talked again in early March. During that conversation she offered to share a copy of her personal journal with Rivas, a gesture of trust that meant a great deal to him. From her early youth Orozco-Fraser had expressed herself through creative writing, compiling her poetry in journals. Reading her work in her own handwriting added depth and dimension to the “stage Johanna” whom Rivas was developing for the play.
Late that month Rivas let her know that his working title for the play was simply Johanna. Orozco-Fraser responded the same day, saying “I LOVE THE TITLE. Johanna is such a great name, isn’t it? lol… Tlaloc, I am so thrilled and honored for this opportunity. You have no idea of my excitement! 🙂 please don’t hesitate to ask me any questions. Can’t wait to get together in the Spring.”
As Rivas continued to refine the play, Dissell’s reading and responses helped to guide him. She downplayed the importance of the Dart Award that she and photographer Gus Chan received for the series of articles and photographs that inspired Rivas to write the play. Throwing the spotlight back onto Orozco-Fraser, Dissell said,
[The Dart Award] is such inside baseball for journalists. The two changes to state law, the juvenile protection orders and the law that made education on teen dating violence were by far the most meaningful changes. I went down and watched Johanna testify before state lawmakers in Columbus and it was such an amazing thing to watch her sit and tell her story and make change.
You’ve given me an idea for what can substitute the Dart Award scene – but to let you know (in dramatic terms; I’m about to talk about you in the 3rd person): Rachel’s arc (journey) is completed with the recognition she receives. All the doubt she encounters, and whether or not she’ll be able to do justice to Jojo’s story, needs closure. A type of validation. There are other ways to find closure – so I’ll think about what you’ve told me. It’s not meant to make you (the real Rachel) feel weird – it’s about the audience understanding that Rachel (the character) receiving something she didn’t ask for (unexpected reward!) and immediately running out to see Jojo about it.
Dissell also helped Rivas refine Chan’s onstage character, emphasizing Chan’s serious side and the way his status as a father of several children and a devoted family man helped him connect with the Orozco family. Here too, Rivas developed new ideas based on her input. He wrote:
In a way, [Gus] became my replacement for “Kevin” [Orozco-Fraser’s brother, a character who appeared in an early draft of the play but was cut from later drafts to accommodate the small ensemble cast] – the play does need mirth in order to release the pressure in the play. If there isn’t any humor, the play turns dark and relentless. I’m not trying to send up Gus in any way. I’m sure he’s a fantastic guy. But in a world of many serious characters with good intentions, I need at least one consistent character that allows the audience to breathe a little. Gus is that guy (for now) and it’s only during the scenes with the editor where that takes place where the humor is more of a dry wit than what’s on the page. Again, you’ve given me another idea for Gus … (see what happens when you tell me more about people?) 😉
Thanks to Dissell, Rivas was later able to contact Gus Chan directly and create his onstage character even more vividly based on his impressions of the man himself.
Rivas conducted two private developmental readings of the play in the months before the CPT production started rehearsals, one in Pittsburgh PA where he was spending the winter break with his wife, dramaturg Megan Monaghan Rivas, and the other in Iowa City IA where he teaches at the University of Iowa. Dissell listened to the Iowa reading via Skype, seeing at last for the first time an actress playing herself. Orozco-Fraser has chosen only to read the play on the page, saving the experience of seeing performance until she returns to Cleveland. Though Kevin’s character was cut from the script, her brother has frequently attended rehearsals at CPT and shared invaluable information, insights, and background with the ensemble.
As a first-time CPT playwright, Rivas knows that these key collaborators chose to trust him to tell their story in a new way, on a new stage. He calls this trust a blessing – for himself, for his play, and for the Cleveland community who will share it.
Megan Monoghan Rivas
Dramaturg, Johanna: Facing Forward