By PAT WATSON
Diane Johnstone is still beaming from the 2013 Canadian Comedy Award best one-person show nomination her stage play, Desperate Church Wives, has received. She took it as extra validation that a gospel play would earn recognition from a secular organization.
Winning rave reviews at Toronto’s Fringe Festival, the messages woven into Desperate Church Wives of hypocrisy, betrayal and wanting to have a closer relationship with the Creator touches many people, Johnstone says, so she is beyond pleased with the response from critics and audience members alike.
The play was born out of Johnstone’s own search for answers to reconcile the often judgmental responses she would encounter inside churches as she shared the tale of her own troubled past, a chapter that includes drug use and working as a stripper.
“So I thought, what better way to talk about unconditional love but to find a story in the Bible? The responses have been really humbling from the people who have seen the show, everyone Black, White, gay, straight. I just give glory to God,” she says. ‘I can’t even take credit.”
The American-born actress, who is also an ordained minister with a degree in theology, turned to the story of the prophet Hosea and his harlot wife, Gomer, for inspiration. Partnering over a six-month period with Tanarive Due (one of Ebony magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2012) she developed her one-woman play, her fourth creation following Bourgee-Bush Woman, Church Street, Walk the Talk, and Sex, Drugs and the Holy Ghost. These latter three all staged during a four-year period from 2008 to 2010.
A busy actress, Johnstone also leads acting classes where aspiring performers learn that acting requires the courage to reach into their deepest emotions to do justice to their characters.
“Acting is not about pretending,” she says, describing the method of her acting classes as a form of therapy. She gives credit to Hollywood’s Tasha Smith (Tyler Perry’s For Better For Worst) who trained her in the technique.
This then goes to explaining Johnstone’s range in presenting the six characters she embodies in Desperate Church Wives: Grandma Word, Pastor Hortense who gives her life to her church, the faithless betrayer Clarissa, humiliated Reverend Hosea, reformed stripper Barbara and Gomer. The tale is ancient but also tellingly modern.
“Here is a woman who’s a prostitute and God tells Hosea to go and marry this woman yet warns that she may not be faithful even after he marries her. This is a story that happens to show God’s unconditional love and how He feels for us even when we turn our back on him. God’s not hung up on your failings. That’s the reason I came up with this story.”
Johnstone allows that the play has been transformative for her as well.
“It’s very humbling. It helps me to not be judgmental, to be forgiving and to not be hard on myself, to not be hard on others, to be more patient with people, to lighten up, to grow.
“People seeing the play laugh, people cry because there are so many points I hit on. I talk about abortion, about people who give so much time to their church that they do not give time to their family, all these issues across the board.”
Desperate Church Wives is at Gospel Café and Restaurant, 5120 Dixie Rd. Unit 9 on December 28. If tickets sell out for the 200-seat venue, an additional performance is a possibility. For tickets call 905-282-9007.