Staging the unseen: A roundtable talk with the creators of a new Jungle Theater play

two people hold each other's heads on stage
Eric Hagen (left) and JuCoby Johnson play best friends in the new play "5," which opens at the Jungle Theater on Saturday. Johnson also wrote the show.
Photo by Lauren B. Photography, courtesy of Trademark Theater

After years of development, a new play titled “5” is getting its first fully-staged production.

Commissioned in 2020 by Trademark Theater, “5” has been workshopped across the country, including at Connecticut’s O’Neil Center and Minneapolis’s Playwright’s Center. It is now being co-produced by Jungle Theater and Trademark Theater in Minneapolis.  

The following is a transcript of a roundtable discussion playwright JuCoby Johnson and director H. Adam Harris did with MPR News arts reporter Jacob Aloi.  

It has been edited for length and clarity.  

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Jacob Aloi: Could you just give the liner notes of what this show is? What the plot of the show is?  

JuCoby Johnson: The show is about two friends who own a convenience store in a neighborhood that's rapidly changing, being gentrified. And they are offered a buyout.  

And it's about that decision to sell and the way in which that decision brings up resentments, the way it tests their friendship and tests the way they're both thinking about their place in this neighborhood.  

And also, on the back end, there's some theatrical, otherworldly sort of presence there. 

Aloi: This is a very intimate show, in some ways — kind of a parlor drama — but also has these big overarching themes that are happening elsewhere in the world. I'm wondering, what goes into the director's mindset of “how do I stage that?” 

H. Adam Harris: You're trying to keep the actors sort of grounded in reality, but you have to help them understand that their reality is different than our everyday reality … this is a world where miracles happen.  

This is a world where scripture is real. It is not a Biblical show, but there are some Biblical-like events that take place. And so, for me, the task is to sort-of keep them grounded in a reality that has supernatural elements, right? And so, it's really just about grounding them in a world that feels really honest.  

Aloi: What's it like taking the play into all these different spaces, and now getting to stage it? 

Johnson: It's been really exciting, and really fulfilling and challenging. I mean, which is what you want for a new play, you want a new play to be in as many spaces as possible, because there's so many things you don't know until other people get it.  

Harris: Yeah, a lot of trust. And [it] requires a lot of trust between JuCoby and I and our collaborators.  

JuCoby and I are best friends, I call him “brother man.” And it's been many years in the making. And so, we talked about going into this process, like we have to keep putting the play and the story first, how do we keep centering the story and the play?  

JuCoby has given us the blueprint, and all these other people have come along to help build the thing … [we] also have the great privilege of having the playwright as the lead character in the room … it's been really wonderful to sort-of watch his journey in that way as well.  

Two people stand outside for a photograph.
JuCoby Johnson and Eric Hagen pose for a promotional photo for "5," a new play opening at the Jungle Theater on Saturday. Johnson and Hagen star in the production, and Johnson also wrote the show.
Courtesy of Trademark Theater, captured by Lauren B. Photography

Aloi: There's a lot of talk about gentrification in the show. And a lot of questions about race and racism and the history of that. I'm just curious where those themes come from. 

Johnson: Whenever I think about gentrification and the implications of it, my biggest thing is that we forget, in all of our desire for progress, our desire to make, you know, maybe more beautiful architecture or make something that may be “safer,” “neighborhoods safer,” I think we forget about the people who originally are in that place.  

And the biggest problem for me is: What happens when you push out people who have existed in a place for decades? You know, whole lives are affected by things that happen in these sort of development meeting rooms. 

For this play, I really wanted to deal with people who are directly dealing with that. And people who have very opposing opinions about how to engage with that sort of force that's coming through their neighborhood and changing things.  

Aloi: This show has been a number of years in the making. What you want audiences to walk into this with, and then to walk away with? 

Johnson: I want them to walk in with an openness and excitement to see something new, to see something that you have no clue what's going to happen. You maybe know a little bit about [the show] from a press blurb, but you don't really know anything.

And to come in with that openness, of wanting to be surprised, a desire to step into a world that you know nothing about.  

And then as they leave, I really want them to think about the journey that they go on, over the course of this play. 

Harris: Every day could be an end. So how do you show up for the people that you care about? 

I hope people come with an openness to the story. It's funny, you know, we have great moments. It's wild. It's imaginative. It's a little scary, but also it's really about, what do you want to hold close at the end of time. 

“5” runs at Jungle Theater from March 11 until April 16.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.