2022 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Sobriety of Fear’ by Shaun Michael Johnson

Virtuoso solo storytelling about the cycle of family violence, with a script and performance even more stunning than the play's Fringe debut four years ago.

Four years ago I saw this show and was overwhelmed by its excellence. In the review I wrote then, I said:

Count Shaun Michael Johnson among the stunning new talents to be discovered at Capital Fringe. His solo show, Sobriety of Fear, is a tour-de-force of empathic acting. With breathtaking emotional transparency, he portrays four characters: a gentle four-year-old boy, Rudy; his mother Asha, a battered wife; Leroy, the abusive father and husband; and the violent man who was Leroy’s father. Rarely have I witnessed an actor so intimately inhabit distinct other selves and so fluidly transcend boundaries of gender and generation.

Moreover, Johnson wrote the script—a riveting story about domestic violence that rings so true it could have happened exactly this way in real life.

Now having been impressed by Sobriety of Fear all over again, I stand by every word of my original review, and I can attest that Johnson’s script and performance are even more stunning.

Shaun Michael Johnson

The set is a simple black sofa with two end tables: on one a liquor bottle, on the other a rotary phone. Lush piano music plays. In a blackout, we hear singing. Lights up on Johnson as a boy, “I’m Rudy Jackson and this is my story.” Blackout and lights up again on Johnson as an adult man, “I’m Leroy Jackson and this is my story.” Blackout and lights up again on Johnson as Asha, Rudy’s mother and Leroy’s wife, talking on the phone to Brenda at the diner where Asha used to work. Asha’s monolog is chilling, Johnson’s performance is magnetic, and we are pulled immediately into the heart and struggle of a traumatized battered woman. (At one point she confides to Brenda, “Leroy has become a demon.”)

The audience I saw Sobriety of Fear with sat in rapt silence as a gripping story unfolded about the cycle of male-pattern violence: how Leroy witnessed his father abuse his younger brother Ricky, how Leroy began to abuse Ashe once she got pregnant, and how Ashe and Rudy now live in terror. (At one point Rudy prays to God, “Please kill Daddy.”)

The show is sensitively directed as it was four years ago by Mediombo Singo Fofana, and it is full of breathtaking acting choices. When Ashe is recalling the birth of Rudy, for instance, a red throw from the sofa becomes her shawl around her arms, then transforms into a tiny newborn in the hands of its joyful mother, then turns into a superhero’s cape waved in the air by Rudy. When the child is alone and trying to process the panic he lives with, he enacts a mini family drama with three toy bears, one his angry father, one his mother, and one himself (saying, “Momma, Daddy’s gonna hurt us. Daddy’s gonna kill us”).

The production was punctuated by static-y voices prerecorded by Johnson and light cues were shaky, but these Fringe-level tech shortcomings did absolutely nothing to detract from Johnson’s virtuoso solo storytelling. I can think of no more apt praise for it than what I wrote four years ago: “In his shifts from point of view to point of view, it is as if Johnson shows us each character’s unfiltered soul.”

And I am moved to restate for the record: “If you care about acting, if you care about violence against women, if you care about whether men can have the guts to get it, see Sobriety of Fear.”


Running Time: 55 minutes, no intermission.

Sobriety of Fear plays three more times — July 22, 2022, at 5:15 pm; July 23 at 9:15 pm; July 24 at 8 pm — at 23rd Amendment – Formerly Washington Sports Club, 3270 M Street NW, Washington, DC. To see the performance schedule and purchase tickets ($15), go online.

COVID Safety: The audience is to remain masked for the show. The mask needs to cover your mouth and nose the whole time. Proof of vaccination and ID are checked before entry.

Genre: Drama
Age appropriateness: Appropriate for Adults Only

Writer/Actor: Shaun Michael Johnson
Director: Mediombo Singo Fofana

2018 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Sobriety of Fear’ (review by John Stoltenberg)

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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