Bambi Johnson is currently the director and choreographer of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” now playing at Street Lamp Productions.
Bambi Johnson’s untimely dismissal from Cecil College’s Milburn Stone Theatre on Wednesday, April 5th, 2017 caused shock, frustration, and sadness among her supporters in the community. Almost a year later since the controversial event, MD Theatre Guide spoke with Bambi about the past and how she has moved on to a bigger and brighter future.
For more information about “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Street Lamp Productions, click here.
How did the Milburn Stone debacle begin?
I honestly don’t know the how or the why. I can only make suppositions based on the way everything transpired. When I was put at the helm, the theatre was operating at a huge deficit and I was given a target of three years to pull it into the black by the Controller and Director of Finance. We were well ahead of schedule with making that happen, so I cannot believe that is the reason. At that time, the theatre fell under the direction of the Vice President of Academic Programs. Our working relationship was extremely good, the theatre was successful and there was no contention of any sort.
The change in atmosphere happened when he retired and we were put under the direction of the Vice President of Community & Government Relations. It came out of nowhere and felt contrived. So much so that when I was called to her office after our December production, “Cats,” I fully expected it was to receive kudos for the extraordinary ticket sales and for the great job everyone at the theatre had done on that show. I could not have been more mistaken. Trumped up allegations of everything from poor decision making to mismanagement and misconduct were hurled at me. The “gaslighting” had begun. I was given a “formal” write up, followed by a “warning” and ending with my firing. In my opinion, that VP either did not like what I stood for or something about me was an offense to her (perhaps it was my lack of a degree; but under the terms of my promotion I was actively pursuing it) OR they knew I had privileged knowledge and tangible evidence of mismanagement at the theatre that would reflect very badly on the current administration. I do not know what the real agenda was.
From that point on she and the Director of HR launched an attack on me personally and professionally. I knew the attempt was to get rid of me from the beginning, and therefore sought the advice of a lawyer. My lawyer guided me through the entire debacle, encouraging me to not quit, but to let them fire me. It went on for roughly six months. (I also became aware that I was not alone; there were many people who were let go with the shift in power; many of whom were also seeking legal advice.) To this day I don’t understand why they didn’t simply fire me if they didn’t like me; after all, Maryland is an “at will” state and you don’t even need a reason. I think there could only be two reasons they chose their course of action: either they didn’t want me to apply for unemployment (which I would not and did not do), or they thought there may be backlash from the firing so they set out to attack and destroy my reputation to avert any negative response from the community. They needed to minimize fallout. But I don’t think they were in any way prepared for or expected the fallout that did happen. I know I was taken aback by it all…. In a very good way.
I’ll never forget the morning after the firing, my daughter called and said “Mom, get on Facebook…. Now!” I was not prepared for what I saw. The outrage, concern, and support for me was monumental. The world stopped for me that day, and a new light began to glow from inside. Not many people have the privilege of seeing their legacy before they die. I feel I was given that gift, and it gave me strength…. But to be honest, it also terrified me. How could I ever live up to the outpouring I was receiving. It was one of the best things that came out of it. Conversely, the heartbreaking part was not what strangers like the VP and HR Director did to me, but what the person who I had thought of as a friend, who I mentored, who I found jobs for and went to bat for did to me. Looking back, it is all so clear; why had I not seen it when everyone was warning me it was happening? My “Judas” existed in the form of the then Production Manager who is now the person they put in place to run the theatre. Never before had I felt such betrayal and false friendship for personal gain. With his help, I was finally given my walking papers that stated I was uncommitted, toxic and bad for the theatre’s reputation.
Say what you will about me, but my life has been committed to being the exact opposite of all of those things. And when word got out that these were their reasons, hundreds of people stood up and protested. They protested the firing because they knew this was not who I was. There were people from all walks of my life; people who I had only just begun to work with, people who have worked with me for over forty years, kids I’d taught, former employers, and more. Their voice was loud and it was persistent. People who worked at and for the theatre walked away. Hundreds of social media rants and emails were sent to the Board of Directors, the President of the College, and others. And not one of those letters were answered or even acknowledged other than to say publicly in a newspaper article that all those people who left could be replaced. The only thing that was said aloud about the situation was when the HR Director while attending a “Mary Poppins” rehearsal to do damage control was overheard saying she was “sick of dealing with these people.”
People who worked for the public school systems were reprimanded for protesting after their supervisors were contacted by the College in an effort to end the outcry. Well, people don’t like injustice, especially when it smells of corruption and misuse of power. Many people walked away from that beautiful venue with wonderful performing opportunities on principle and on the way they were treated. It was a sacrifice that I recognize 100%. In fact, so much so that I don’t understand how anyone who was around during that time or who knows any of the people who walked away can find it within themselves to go back there. I don’t know how they can look friends in the face and feel good about their decision. I know that I couldn’t. It all became about so much more that me getting fired; it was appalling that so many good people were ignored … people who had given so much to that theatre and its livelihood. For me, it was no longer about being fired. It was about the reasons they gave for it and, more so, about their treatment of those who should have mattered to them. It became far bigger than me.
How did the Milburn Stone debacle end?
I went through the employee grievance process. It was grueling and unfair to say the least, but I needed to do it because I needed to have those false reasons for firing removed. I submitted a 40 page appeal on April 13, 2017 addressing every one of their reasons for termination and provided over 175 pages of back–up material including letters from past employers and co-workers refuting their allegations and attacks on my work ethic and character. I put before them the hundreds of people who declared that the picture HR and the VP painted of me is not who I am – after all, that many character witnesses cannot all be lying. They painfully dragged out the process. It took over a month to even schedule the interview meeting.
Following the grievance interview on May 16th, I was told that it would take him (the grievance officer/a Cecil College employee) a little longer than expected to render his decision based on the information I’d provided; a week instead of a few days is what I was told. It wasn’t until June 20th that I heard anything. At that time, I was offered the chance to resign. I declined. It was nearly another month before the decision was passed down on July 13th. Of course, it did not go in my favor (which I fully expected that ruling), but what I didn’t expect was that it did not address a single concern I had put forth. It only stated that Cecil College had followed proper protocol. That was never the question; the question was the reasons they gave for firing me.
In the end, I wholeheartedly believe they dragged their heels for two reasons: they didn’t know how to rule on this and come out the “good guy,” and they were hoping that the outcry and outrage would blow over before handing down the decision they knew all along they were going to make.
What did you learn from your experience with the Milburn Stone debacle?
That relationships and reputation matter. I could not have survived this had I not built strong relationships throughout my entire life and career…. Or had I not lived a life built on a solid foundation where character, morals and honest-to-goodness love of people and making a positive impact matter.
What is the secret to being a great choreographer?
Hmmmmmm…. I don’t know…. I’d have to ask someone who is great! Seriously, I don’t feel like a “great” choreographer. I feel like I want to be a great choreographer, so I’m always striving to learn more and improve myself. I know that sounds sappy, but I honestly feel that way. Once you think you’re great, you just stopped yourself on the road to becoming great. I love what I do, and watching someone feel like a rock star up on that stage because of my choreography is my drug of choice!
You are currently the director & choreographer of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Street Lamp Productions. Why should audiences go out and see it?
First and foremost, Street Lamp Productions is a wonderful little theatre community dedicated to the art and the people creating that art. You can feel it the minute you walk in. I love working there and I love the owner Laura Munzert-Woods. Her philosophies are very much in line with mine when it comes to why we do what we do. When she offered me a chance to take on JCS, I …first being a Lloyd Webber fangirl (yes, it’s true) and secondly loving this show as it was one of the first large-scale theatre productions I had seen…. jumped at it. I think I said yes before the offer was completely out of her mouth. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the show in the language they did to make the story live for us. They took Jesus and Judas out of the dusty language of the King James Bible and let us see them as real people. It’s relatable and I love that!
Since the look and feel of 1970 is very different from today, I’ve chosen to incorporate social media, cell phones and other forms of technology in this production. Its “cyberpunk” design gives it an almost Matrix-like or futuristic feel. With so many clear parallels to today, I can see why it was meant to be set in the present; both in 1970 and in 2018. Not only does it retain its power and its point, it helps make the story accessible to a contemporary audience. And that’s what I hope to do. I want people to feel it, not simply look back on it from a 2000 year distance. That, coupled with an extraordinarily talented all-star cast, makes this a must-see! I’ve loved every minute of working with these people, and I think audiences will love every minute of watching them tell this important story in world history.