Dick Johnson is a hot mess.
He claims he’s never turned down drink, drugs or a hole to fuck regardless of its origin. If Johnson’s to be believed, he survived a harrowing childhood in which he was born in a fleabag hotel and kept hidden from child welfare and school authorities. He was raised by his supremely creepy Uncle Willy and never batted an eyelid when he once witnessed a neighborhood boy being burned alive by a downed power line.
He’s also dead.
The Wake of Dick Johnson, which premiered at a private home in east Charlotte on May 25, is a wickedly funny and fearlessly bleak one-man show written and performed by journalist, screenwriter, music video producer and playwright Luke Walker. The pre-premiere performance I attended was the centerpiece of an evening of offbeat and challenging entertainment that included feats of derring-do by Cut Throat Freak Show and music by Dead Sea Scrilla and Asheville duo Okapi.
As the audience approached a wooden cabin serving as a chapel, I felt a subdued yet palpable carnival atmosphere. By “carnival,” I don’t mean the midway with bright lights and whirligig rides. We’re talking the dimly lit warrens where the sideshows lurk, teeming with freaks, fire eaters, pickled punks and atrocities.
The creepy carnie feel carried over inside the chapel, once Johnson, portrayed by Walker, rolled out of his coffin as if it were a Murphy bed and quipped that he was late to his own funeral. Seated at the kind of small wooden desk I recall from parochial school, Johnson delivered his own eulogy in a rapid fire, alliterative and folksy cadence that was a cross between a sideshow barker and a street corner preacher — except this particular sermon/spiel focused on womanizing, buggery and tales of paranoid losers.
As video of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination flashed upon the wall above his coffin, the chatty cadaver bragged about his amoral conquests and crimes. On a portable black and white TV, a screen full of snow sputtered to life and revealed the deceased Uncle Willy, who ridiculed and harassed Johnson from beyond the grave.
It soon became clear that the worst crime cataloged that evening was committed against Johnson, not by him, as Uncle Willy boasted about being a pedophile who raped his nephew repeatedly. In a disturbing illustration of a cycle of abuse continuing unbroken through generations, Johnson made excuses for his uncle’s advances, even dropping his pants at one point in submission to reveal blood red long johns.
Outbursts of violence — like when Johnson shatters a bottle or eats a whiskey glass — provide momentary catharsis, but don’t slacken the piece’s unbearable tension
Poetic, profane and black as a starless night, The Wake of Dick Johnson is a comic, eloquent and upsetting rumination on a meaningless universe where even death will not relieve the pain of living. Walker’s is a distinctive voice that taps into the unease and uncertainty that many are feeling in an era ravaged by cruelty, corruption and decay.
By the show’s end Walker as Johnson doesn’t address the question of where we go from here, but perhaps his point is that there may be nowhere to go. There’s a summation of sorts when Johnson quotes astronomer Carl Sagan to the effect that we’re all made of stardust. Johnson points out that stellar matter eventually collapses into a black hole, so if we’re spawned from stars we’re also comprised of the most destructive matter in the universe from which no light escapes.
Walker’s irreverent Wake is a pitch-black sermon delivered with style, panache and a fuck-ton of swear words.