By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jan 06, 2011 at 9:02 AM

Career paths can be crazily crooked. Ask Dennis F. Johnson.

The West Allis native is directing his first big professional stage production, "Crumbs From the Table of Joy," in an unusual joint effort of two Milwaukee theater companies, Renaissance Theaterworks and Uprooted Theatre. He has prepared for the job by working under some of the state's leading directors.

But despite a lifelong attachment to theater, getting to this moment was neither easy nor certain.

Johnson, the high profile general manager of Transfer Pizzeria and Cafe, saw his first play at the age of 3, and he began acting classes at 5. He was involved in the high powered theater program at Pius XI High School while a student there, and assistant directed a modern retelling of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Pius a year after graduating.

However he took a vocational detour, spending three years as a modern dance major at UWM while working a third shift management position at Columbia-St. Mary's Hospital. The job led him to switch majors and invest two years in a health care administration program at UWM.

Johnson eventually got around to studying theater at the school, and in 2009 he partnered with actors Travis A. Knight, Marti L. Gobel and Tiffany Yvonne Cox in founding the new African-American stage company Uprooted Theatre. That is how he and his colleagues became involved with Renaissance Theaterworks.

"They asked us how to start a theater," Renaissance co-founder Suzan Fete recently explained. "When we started (in 1993) people were so nice to us, and we wanted to pass it on, share our knowledge and experience."

About that time, Johnson, Knight and Gobel were involved in the Renaissance production of "The Persians." Johnson was the assistant director on the project, and Knight and Gobel were actors. Personal ties were formed between the two theater companies' personnel.

Renaissance is on a mission to increase ethnic diversity in its audiences and tell more stories about people of color, and a joint production with Uprooted was discussed. The two groups chose to co-stage Lynn Nottage's mid-'90s drama "Crumbs From the Table of Joy."

Nottage is a Yale School of Drama graduate and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant whose play "Ruined" won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The Milwaukee Rep produced her "Intimate Apparel" in the Stiemke Theater a few years ago.

"Crumbs," set in Brooklyn in 1950, is a domestic drama about a black family struggling with the death of the mother and a move north from Florida. It has been given many regional productions around the country, including separate stagings 10 years apart by Chicago's two biggest theater companies, Steppenwolf and the Goodman.

"UW (Madison) did the play in 2003, and we loved it," Fete said, speaking for her Renaissance associates. "We had talked among ourselves about producing it."

The "Crumbs" cast will include Uprooted co-founders Cox and Gobel; Ashleigh LaThrop, who spent last summer with the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, and Cassandra Bissel, whose credits include playing the mother in the Milwaukee Rep production of "My Name Is Asher Lev" last fall.

The Renaissance-Uprooted show represents a personal triumph of the creative spirit for the 30-year-old Johnson. He had shifted from dance to health administration at UWM for practical reasons.

"I let the mind overtake the heart," he says. "I didn't see a life in Milwaukee that could be supported by dance, and I didn't want to leave the city and my family.

"But I came to realize that while I could live well in business, I wouldn't be happy. I needed to go this route."

The route would be as a director. He appeared in one professional show as an actor, a Skylight Opera Theatre production of "Hello, Dolly!" "I realized I was not very good," he says, adding, "and I much prefer seeing my vision of shows come to fruition."

That vision has been shaped by the mentoring of many, including Anne Marie Cammarato (associate artistic director Madison Repertory Theatre, artistic director Delaware Theatre Company), actor-director Angela Iannone and American Players Theatre producing artistic director David Frank. Not only did Johnson serve as assistant director to Iannone on Renaissance's productions of "Hippolytus" and "The Persians," he was her daughter's babysitter for nine years.

How much has the intense Iannone's style rubbed off on him? "The way I work is fairly different from anyone I have worked with, but I realize a lot of my directing vocabulary is hers," he reports.

"Crumbs From the Table of Joy" opens Jan. 14 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Hooray for Next Act

The new year brings terrific news from Next Act Theatre. The company, which is staging its shows in other groups' theaters this season, has exceeded its fund raising goal for leasing a Fifth Ward industrial structure and building a new performance space and other facilities within it.

Next Act has raised, through donations and pledges, $994,020, an overage of $44,000 of what it was seeking. The success of the capital campaign is exhilarating in these tough economic times because the company deserves a new home and the community is smart enough to financially acknowledge that.

Construction of a 150-seat theater, offices, rehearsal space and production support areas in the former Transpak Crane Bay building at 255 S. Water St. is scheduled to begin next month. Completion is expected to be in time for the start of Next Act's 2011-'12 season in September.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.