PORTLAND, Maine — Taking a two-year leave of absence, high school-teacher Avis Johnson joined the Peace Corps when she was in her late 50s. When Johnson’s leave was up, she quit teaching and stayed in the corps for four more years. She spent her time training teachers and caring for mothers with premature babies.
During her six years overseas, Johnson witnessed the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. In Chile, she watched the moon rise over the rainforest mountains of Patagonia. She laughed at free-range piglets romping through low tide mud in a Tongan tropical island paradise.
That was all back in the early 1970s.
This weekend, a few months shy of her 100th birthday, Johnson will see her Peace Corps experiences come to life on stage. Her grandson, local theater veteran Eric Darrow Worthley, has adapted some of her written memoirs into an experimental dance piece for the PortFringe festival.
Q: What made you want to join the Peace Corps at an age when many people are starting to think about retirement?
Johnson: I was very interested when Kennedy started it and I couldn’t join at the time because I was raising three children. So, when they were on their own, I thought I’d like to do something. I filled out all those pages of application and they called me.
Q: You were in Tonga, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Chile. Did you find your time in the Peace Corps fulfilling?
Johnson: Oh yes. Very much. They were all so different. Every one of them was very different from the other. In Ethiopia, there was so much poverty — children begging on the streets, hungry. In the Tongan Islands, nobody’s hungry. You’d just have to pick food off a tree.
“The city is quiet: waiting. It has been several days since the coup, the people’s takeover. Halle Sallasse ‘s dictatorship has ended. Rumors are numerous but no one knows where the Emperor is. House arrest, jail, hospital, dead—all we know for sure is that he has been overthrown. The first general who took control was executed and today the word is that the current General is under house arrest.” — Avis Johnson in Ethiopia, September 1974
Q: How did you start writing down your recollections.
Johnson: A couple of years ago, I took a creative writing class. I’d never written anything before. I found that I like to write. I don’t know that I’m great at writing but people seem to like them. It amuses me [laughing] when I think how Eric stole them from my computer.
Worthley: I did not steal them.
Q: These stories happened almost 50 years ago. You don’t have any trouble recalling the details?
Johnson: No, my memory is pretty good. It really is. Of course, it doesn’t matter. Nobody will know [laughing] if I’m making it up or not. Right now, I’ve lost my glasses [still laughing].
Q: Eric, tell me a little more about the show and how you’re telling these stories.
Worthley: Well, after I asked my grandmother for permission [laughing]…
Johnson: I don’t think you did.
Worthley: I did — [laughing more] — please stop telling people I stole your stories.
Worthley: The stories are being read aloud, pretty much just the way she wrote them. Narratively, they are simple tales, so I’m also working with Vivid Motion, pairing the stories with dances, creating a richer, more complete visual experience.
Johnson: I can’t see how they’re going to do it [laughing] but they assure me it’s going to be OK.
“I had already learned that older women in Chile were respected and I had no fears from the workmen. I eagerly said I would go. They waited while I checked out of the hotel and gave me a front seat by the window. As soon as we started I was handed a tin cup of red wine. Each man had his tin cup and raised it to me. I responded and sipped a mouthful. It was strong. I slowly drank during the trip hoping the alcohol would kill any lingering bacteria in the cup.” — Avis Johnson in Chile, early 1970s
Q: Why not just dramatize them? Why dance?
Worthley: Dance will allow us to create a better sense of the people that she met and the land she went through — without the expense of elaborate sets and costumes. I didn’t have the budget to recreate the Tongan Islands and the Patagonian rainforests. What I did have was access to some wonderful dancers who can interpret that and add a visual that’s not directly representative.
Q: Do you feel like your stories are in good hands?
Johnson: Well, I’ll have to see it to know [laughing]. I’m going on Saturday. I’ll let you know.
“Travelogue” will be performed at Mechanics Hall, 519 Congress St, Portland, on Saturday, June 16, at 7:45 p.m., Sunday, June 17, at 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 20, at 7:45 p.m. and Friday, June 22, at 7:45 p.m.