NRHS alumni take to the New York spotlight
Published 5:49 pm Friday, July 21, 2023
Nansemond River High School alumni Harold Hodge Jr. and Rayna Johnson are making their mark in New York City.
With Hodge as director, Johnson joins the case Aug. 9-13 for his award-winning play “Fancy Maids” in New York’s SoHo Rep’s Walkerspace.
Following their training in NRHS performing arts club and high school graduation, Hodge and Johnson went their separate ways to achieve their acting dreams. Hodge graduated from Pace University’s International Performance Ensemble with a bachelor of arts degree in directing. Johnson earned her bachelor of arts degree in drama and theater from Norfolk State University and then received her master of fine arts degree in acting from Pace University’s Actor Studio Drama School.
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Little did they know they would reunite, and even collaborate, as professionals in the acting world.
“We always talked about it too, which is why when Rayna and I first reconnected for this process,” Hodge said. “Because we hadn’t seen each other for seven years before we reconnected, I was saying that young us would be so thrilled that this was happening.”
Both had dreams to be in the field at a young age.
While his family roots were in Alabama, Hodge grew up in Japan as his father served in the military. His father also remarried while there to a woman of Filipino descent.
“I grew up as a southern black young man in Japan with biracial brothers and sisters. So it was like a multicultural blend growing up. It gave me a unique perspective because I was surrounded by many different perspectives,” Hodge said.
“It’s a really different worldview. I think living abroad, at least for a year, definitely helps reshape your mind because so much of our media and just our world is so western driven.”
He said it opened his mind by living outside of western culture, not just American culture. This multi perspective has helped him not just in his outlook on life, but also in his work as a writer.
This allowed him to hear stories from all different corners of the world, Hodge said. “I feel like it is what inspired me to want to tell stories in the first place because I was surrounded by many different perspectives and voices”
Originally from Hampton, Johnson is the eldest of four girls with parents who are both pastors.
She said recalls on her grandmother taking her to see broadway shows at the Hampton Coliseum and her training as a dancer that began at age 7, learning ballet, jazz, jazz-theater, modern and hip-hop.
“The arts have been a huge part of my life. I’ve thrown myself into every artistic avenue possible,” she said.
Following both of their moves to Suffolk and studying in the NRHS’ performing arts program, the two would meet and work together, which Johnson recalls as “a riot” and “so much fun.”
Johnson also pointed to the importance of Dr. Joleen Neighbours’ teaching her how to value community and relying on each other to do art.
“I remember being in my acapella group and just wanting to sing and act and dance,”Johnson said. “We figured it out together and we did it together. Truly.”
Reunion and “Fancy Maids”
In a joyous exchange on who will tell the story, Johnson discussed on her second year of grad school and reuniting with a familiar face
“And I look in the Starbucks on that corner and Harold’s coming around the corner, and I yell out the street. I am like, ‘Harold Hodge!? Like what!?’ [I] gave him the biggest hug and we’re like super loud mind you. It was like 9 a.m. on the street. That was the first time I saw him again since we had graduated high school,” she said.
After catching up, Hodge was casting for “Fancy Maids” and reached out to Johnson to show interest in her auditioning for the play. Hodge said her audition was magic and was thrilled to work together again.
“It was really a stroke of luck honestly,” said Hodge. “It was just a coincidence that we ran into each other and that we reconnected and now that we’re working on this project together seven years later.”
Discussing the play, Hodge said it’s set in 1853 and set after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, a law that allowed southerners to go north and retrieve runaway slaves.
“It’s right after that law has been passed is when we meet Idabelle who is a runaway slave who has just escaped from a fancy maids auction,” Hodge said. “She runs up north to where she finds Pinky’s Pleasure House. It’s a brothel full of women who have escaped due to the fugitive slave act. They aren’t able to get honest and legitimate work anywhere because no one is hiring black women because they don’t want to hire a runaway and bring slave taxes into their home.”
He described that Pinky is an escaped slave, as well, who is giving the women an opportunity to make money to move to Canada and establish themselves. Despite meeting many different women, Idabelle has someone from her past come by with the other women questioning what to do next. Johnson also plays Tweet, one of the women of the pleasure house.
“Tweet to me is, she is a person balancing I feel what it means to be a woman, but also be a girl,” she said of her character. “She’s your little sister. She’s your cousin. She’s your best friend. She has a lot to say and she has a lot on her mind. She wants to be heard a lot.”
A play about “reclaiming your body and reclaiming boundaries,” Hodge aims to inspire the audience to have conversations about important topics.
A message for folks at home
The pair had a message for local residents in Suffolk who have been told that they aren’t able to follow their dreams of acting.
“My hope is that those other high schoolers who are sitting in the choir room or the theater room like we were all those years ago who want to do this [to] know that it is possible. There is nothing standing in your way other than yourself,” Hodge said. “It is a lot of hard work. I can’t stress that enough. But as long as you’re willing to put in that work, it’s definitely possible to achieve the dream that you have for yourself.”
Johnson agreed, sharing her own message.
“What Dr. Joleen Neighbours did for me, always empowering me and telling me that I can do it, and what would be necessary,” she said. “I want people to know back home, just like Harold was saying, that it is possible. It is obtainable.”
She stressed the importance of being able to express her work and her art to the world, while also making sure that black and brown kids and people of color in the 757 area know they can follow their dreams.
“Find your people and believe in yourself,” Johnson recommended. “That’s my biggest takeaway for what I want everyone back home to know.”