In 1974, supermodel Beverly Johnson made history as the first-ever Black woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue. After being seen on more than 500 magazine covers throughout her trailblazing career, working on the stage and screen over the following decades, and meeting, mingling with, and dating some of the most renowned celebrities of the day, she is now taking audiences on a journey through her life in the spotlight of the fashion and entertainment industries and the socio-political movements of her era, from Civil Rights and Women’s Rights to #MeToo, in Beverly Johnson: In Vogue, presented by Ambler, PA’s Act II Playhouse in association with Bud Martin for a limited Off-Broadway engagement at 59E59.
Created by Johnson with long-time colleague and director Josh Ravetch, the on-stage memoir (largely based on her 2015 book The Face That Changed It All, written with Allison Samuels) is neither a play nor an enacted solo show. It takes the format of an autobiographical reading with minimal action, enhanced with pre-recorded music and large-scale back-screen projections (sound and projection design also by Ravetch) of images that illustrate the key accomplishments, episodes, and people from her own life and times, and the most influential pioneering Black women of the past century.
Johnson, aside from her entrance, exit, and curtain call, remains seated in a director’s chair at audience right, next to a small end table with a coffee mug, and a music stand that holds the script from which she reads, only occasionally looking up at the house, removing her reading glasses, or turning in her seat to view the projections behind her. Even the frequent bits of acerbic humor and sardonic commentary – Johnson tells us repeatedly that she was known as “the model with the big mouth” – are read from the page.
It’s a surprising choice for an outspoken star with such an extensive resumé of stage and screen credits (especially since it’s her own real-life experience), resulting in a lack of spontaneity, except on the part of the very vocal and responsive audience on the date I attended, reacting to all of the dropped names (among them Elizabeth Taylor, Halston, Arthur Ashe, Mike Tyson, and David Bowie) and photos, barriers she broke, high points, and tumultuous lows of her story. Those include her reliance on cocaine to stay thin (she’s been clean for 40 years now), her troubled marriage and failed custody battle for her daughter Anansa (who, as a teenager, chose to leave her father to move to LA with her mother), and her 2014 Vanity Fair article about being drugged by Bill Cosby decades earlier (after her close friend and fellow model Janice Dickinson came forward), which was a significant impetus for #Me Too, and, for the first time, gave Johnson “a voice, not just a face.”
In contrast with her soft-spoken (but always self-assured) speech pattern heard in an interview screened in one of the show’s video projections (or what her contemporaries might remember of her from the past), that voice here is brassy and assertive, fearless and open, delivering a message of strength, endurance, and progress, as well as warnings about the mistakes she made and what others should be careful not to do. She has lived, and continues to live, a fascinating life in the spotlight (underscored by Joey Moro’s lighting), through a period of dramatic change. For me, Beverly Johnson: In Vogue would have had even more dramatic heft had she presented it as an active theatrical performance rather than a static reading.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission.