We had the good fortune of connecting with John Wells III and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi John, have you ever found yourself in a spot where you had to decide whether to give up or keep going? How did you make the choice?
When I hear this question, I hear the voices of my mother and father in the back of my head saying, “I didn’t raise a quitter!”
Giving up has never been an option for me. One of the things that I’ve learned while trailblazing my own professional path, is that failure is not debilitating. I think fear of failure is really a fear of not being able to overcome it. that’s a valid fear, but when we realize that there is actually no such thing as failure… not really. (Okay, maybe we can screw up royally. Or maybe we can just miss the mark. But at the end of the day failure is just a stepping block toward success.) And when we realize that. We can learn from it. Get up. and try again.
So, no, for me giving up has never really been an option. I think the more productive way to look at it, is readjustment. Sometimes, if what you’re doing doesn’t work, take a step back. Readjust. And try a different tactic. Failure is inevitable, it’s how you grow from that failure that makes all the difference.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
“You hear that music in the air? Take the train to the top of the world and I’m there! I’m Home!” -Lin Manuel Miranda, In The Heights
I sat on the edge of the mezzanine seat, gripping the banister, with tear-filled eyes. The set was empty. The actors had taken their final bows, and the audience was now filing out. My parents waited patiently for me to regain my composure and to exit the Richard Rodgers theatre with the rest of the crowd. It was my twenty-first birthday, my parents bought tickets to see the new musical, In The heights.
Why had this play impacted me so much? It wasn’t a particularly sad play. Certainly, not one to leave a person in tears at the end of it. But the play had meant so much more to me. This was the first time that I, a theatre student, had seen people on stage that looked like me, in a show that wasn’t about race, but about people. That’s not to say that there weren’t other plays that had people of color in them. Dreamgirls hit the stage in the ’80s, the Lion King was famous for giving people of color jobs. And there have been several other plays about the “black experience”. But In The Heights was different. Although In The Heights was a play about Hispanic culture, it positively presented their culture without portraying negative stereotypes. It was simply a show about people. Hispanic people. Who lived in Washington Heights.
Why am I telling this story in a post that’s supposed to be about my career? In The Heights changed the way I viewed storytelling. It filled a hole that I didn’t realize was there. The need to relate. It occurred to me that in my (then) twenty-one years of life, I had never seen a play where the people of color were just people in a play. In fact, I realized that there were two types of plays. A “normal” play or musical, usually acted by a cast that was 90% white, and the few people of color in the cast, were normally in the background, brought out only to hit some belt-y note or to deliver some sassy line. And then there were “race” plays. Which was normally about one particular race and told as if it were some alternate reality, where white people didn’t exist? It was the same in literature. Most of the stories I enjoyed, predominantly fantasy stories or those containing a superhero of some form, were normally told from their white protagonists’ perspective. And when there was a POC story to be told, it was normally one about rising from the ashes. Or escaping the ghetto. Or rising above the “cultural norms”.
This wasn’t my reality. I grew up in a middle-class, black family, who moved to the suburbs in 1994 where only 1% of the population was black. I loved superheroes and fairytales and often felt out of place because the image of “blackness” that I saw portrayed in stories was not the image of blackness that I knew to be true. This feeling of displacement followed me throughout grade school and even through college. It wasn’t until after college that I realized that I actually could be a leading man in something. While I was in college, I was always cast in a subservient role. The baker, the groundskeeper, the kid from the projects. It was even worse for my friends who were a darker shade than I, they were cast as actual slaves and servants. In fact, in college, I was denied a role because I wouldn’t play him “black” enough, (his words not mine). Veiled as a compliment, I was told that “he respected me because I stuck to my standards and refused to “shuck and jive” and portray the “true black experience” as the role required.” In fact, during my senior year of college, I was told that I should seek a career off the stage rather than on the stage because the roles for African American actors were limited, and unless I took up Shakespeare (The only place my race wouldn’t be taken into account, again his words, not mine) there would be no place for me in the world of theatre. It wasn’t until after college that I realized that I too could play the Seymour’s, and the Danny Zucko’s, and the Charlie Browns.
It is hard for me to separate my motivations for writing from my experiences in professional theatre. After all, it’s all storytelling. I think about the emotional response I had the first time I saw In The Heights, and I wonder how much more motivated I would have been if as a child, I had seen more people in stories that looked like me. This is the reason I wrote the Kalib Andrews Chronicles. I believe that it is important for children to see more characters that look like them. Read more stories that they can relate to. Engage with more heroes that they can identify with. Growing up, my favorite characters didn’t look like me, at all. So I created one that did. I didn’t see a lot of theatres that were creating stories about the marginalized experience, so I created a theatre that did. I hope my art can bring inspiration to the next generation. And that little black and bi-racial kids, as well as kids from every other background, might be able to look up at my art and know that they too can be Extraordinary.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Okay well, we would start by going to the beach. I love the beach, I find it very relaxing. I often go there by myself, when I can tear myself away from work.
We will try out different food spots. My favorite Mexican restaurant, Chuy’s. Probably get some BBQ. Also, hit up downtown for Hoddads to get a nice burger. Basically, the entire trip would be a food trip. Because I love food.
We’d also check out Balboa Park. Some of the Museums. And possibly a theatre show or two.
And of course, I’d introduce them to my Nerdism. They’d likely be invited to my DnD game, or a Harry Potter marathon.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Wow, where do I even begin?
From the very beginning, my parents instilled in me a work ethic that was unrivaled by many. Whenever I put my mind to something, I did it, and that had a lot to do with the “never give up” mentality that my parents required of me. If I didn’t know something, they urged me to look it up. If I didn’t know how to do something they pushed me to learn how.
One of my earliest memories was as a child, I wanted to get a cup that was on the top shelf, I asked my parents if they would get it for me, and they told me to figure it out. This may seem cruel to many, but what they taught me at that moment, was how to problem solve. A skill that I would take with me for the rest of my life. There is nothing too far, or too out of reach to obtain. you just have to figure out how to get what you want.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention my coach and mentor, Douglas. His guidance has helped me traverse the muddy waters of storytelling. In every aspect of my career. When people ask me what it is that I do, I tell them I am a storyteller. Douglas who initially signed on to be my editor has far surpassed the role of editor and moved straight to mentor family, and life coach. The trust and respect I have for this man are unrivaled.
And lastly, I have to thank the very large network of people who support me. Without them, I would have never made it as far as I have in my journey. There have been many times when I wanted to give up, where one of these people has reminded me that giving up is not an option. They have reminded me of my worth. And have picked me up when I was down.
In the acknowledgment section of my book I say:
There is absolutely no way I could have [done this] on my own. From the very beginning, my motivation came from those who believed in me along the way. My family and friends. Those willing to brave the dark crevices of my mind and report to me, honestly, what they thought of my ideas. Without these raw and vulnerable conversations, I would have never had the strength to keep running toward the finish line.
Youtube: The Awkward Author: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKZq3p6_vScz65hDk3ZK38w/featured
Other: TikTok: JohnWellstheAuthor
Headshots by Tisha Berry