From Fuquay-Varina comes a poet. He has things he wants to show you, musings that began on Tumblr and have become much more. They are poems, visions, truths, and fictions.
Behind the poet’s glasses are eyes soul deep—old eyes—peering from a young brown face linking back to the griots and oracles of ages past. And it is obvious after a brief conversation with this poet that he has accepted the charge of the true artist: to create art that makes us hear, makes us feel, and, above all, makes us see.
Meet Johnny Lee Chapman, III. Recently, Chapman took some time last week to talk with me about his process, his influences, his new project, and the meaning of “The Golden Moment,” which will be part of the Digital Commons Festival at Carolina Performing Arts this winter. Also being a poet and playwright, I am always interested in what inspires other writers. What is the spark that ignites the flame?
For Chapman, that spark often begins internally with a thought, an idea, “Something I’ve experienced that I’m trying to make sense of,” he says. Nature and history are also powerful triggers for his creativity. “I am asking myself, what can I do with this information, how can I repurpose it for the next stage. It’s not a matter of just gaining it and keeping it in my head. I want to pass it along, pass it on…one person to one hundred, storytelling.”
That storytelling for audiences began at UNC-Chapel Hill. Chapman auditioned for the esteemed Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre, a spoken word group affiliated with the university’s Black Student Movement. Writing and performing spoken word with the group is where not only a love for performing began, but an understanding of how to make the right vocal choices with inflections and tone in order to move an audience.
“I got to see what you can do with the voice and that was a big thing. I think that’s where I really shine,” he says. “I think that’s where my art story is.”
Chapman continued to hone the art of spoken word as a member of the amazing Bull City Slam Team under the mentorship of poet Dasan Ahanu—a poet’s poet—who Chapman credits for aiding him on his artistic journey [Editor’s note: Ahanu works at Carolina Performing Arts and oversees the Commons Festival].
Poetry, however, is just one road. Chapman is also an extremely gifted photographer. The photographs that appear on his blog “Where Light and Ink Meet” have a strong emotional pull and give the onlooker cause for introspection. Through this medium and his writing, he is trying to capture, as he puts it, “the golden moment.” Inspired by the author Anne Rice, Chapman defines this as “the moment between drunk and sober when all the elements of a scene come together perfectly, but the second you become conscious of it, it’s gone.”
The power of a visual medium like photography is that it can convey, as Chapman describes it, “emotion without explanation.” This concept brings to mind the work of the Négritude poets’ use of surrealist imagery to convey outrage against colonialism. Working in the 1930s across the African diaspora, these poets used violent, horrific imagery that left no delusions as to what was to be felt, though their lines made little sense in any literal way.
Although influenced by horror and science fiction, Chapman’s approach is more about unveiling truths than shocking audiences. The idea is to reveal a different perspective—one that was perhaps always there, yet ignored, often hidden in plain sight. Chapman seeks to bring the audience that perspective, that truth. He sees himself as a conduit between an experience and the audience. Whether the experience shared is familiar or foreign, the goal is to allow the audience to sit with it.
His current project, Southern (Dis)Comfort, falls in line with work he’s done for the Black On Black Project—traveling across the state, compiling North Carolina history, and educating the public through spoken word, storytelling, and performance. He describes this work as an oral retelling of lesser-known histories and locations. Little-known stories of the state’s indigenous people and descriptions of the Africans who escaped slavery in North Carolina to set up communities in the Dismal Swamp are among some of these histories. Southern (Dis)Comfort, which narrates these histories, will premiere in February as part of the Digital Commons Festival at Carolina Performing Arts.
“Imagine sitting on the porch with your grandpa,” Chapman says, in reference to the mood he wants his performances to establish. Some of life’s best lessons have been taught through porch talk on Southern porches.
Johnny Lee Chapman, III is an artist who works in the tradition of those who came before—dreamers and deep thinkers with the audacity to believe that art can indeed change the human heart. “When you give somebody perspective, it will give them the opportunity to change. And that’s what I want my work to do, change people.”
Johnny Lee Chapman, III is a 20/21 artist-in-residence of the Commons at Carolina Performing Arts. His performance will be presented in digital format during the Commons Festival, which will take place Fridays and Saturdays from January 29 through February 20, 2021. Free with registration, which opens on January 15, 2021.
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