Finding A Niche In Black Theater

Fed up with the lack of quality parts available to black actors in Hollywood, self-described “starving actor” and Houston native Je’Caryous Johnson left Tinseltown behind and instead decided to create an outlet for African Americans to acquire good roles. Along with his uncle, Gary Guidry, who left a stable job as a senior accountant for an oil and gas company, the two tapped into their creative passions to start I’m Ready Productions Inc., a now 7-year-old theater, film, and music production company that specializes in adapting black novels into stage plays and films.

From its days as a fledgling operation, I’m Ready Productions has built its reputation around quality performances and turned itself into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that tours the country.

In 2000, I’m Ready Productions took Heaven’s Child: The Legacy of Emmett Till on the road from Houston to Chicago. Heaven’s Child is the story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black teen from Chicago, who, when visiting family in Mississippi in 1955, was brutally maimed and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till’s death helped mobilize the civil rights movement. It cost $380,000 to create and produce the show and with no experience in national productions and no financial backing from any major investors, Johnson and Guidry turned to their family. “Our family cultivated our talent,” says Johnson, 28, who serves as chairman and CEO of I’m Ready Productions.

After maxing out their own credit cards, borrowing money from family members who tapped 401(k) accounts and other retirement plans, and withdrawing funds from their personal savings accounts, the co-founders raised $400,000 for the production. “It was definitely a leap of faith,” says Guidry, the 33-year-old Houston native who serves as president and COO of I’m Ready. Heaven’s Child turned out to be a critically acclaimed hit but a box office miss. The show only grossed $60,000 and Johnson and Guidry were left to face their family and decide the future of I’m Ready Productions.

Despite the financial failure, Johnson and Guidry still managed to capitalize on the experience. The play itself gained critical praise in the Chicago Defender and other local media outlets, as well as from the public. Also, through word of mouth from local promoters who saw the show, investors from all over the country started to take notice of the company. Today, the Houston-based I’m Ready employs 32 people, posted $6.5 million in revenues in 2004, and expects to earn $15 million this year.

I’m Ready has found a niche in changing African American novels into plays, and produced three more national shows: 2002’s Men Cry in the Dark, which featured Richard Roundtree; followed by The Maintenance Man in 2003, with leading man Billy Dee Williams; and their latest production, Friends and Lovers, based on Eric Jerome Dickey’s best-selling novel, stars Leon, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., and Monica Calhoun. The company is currently in negotiations with a major studio distributor for the production and release of a feature film of Friends and Lovers. The fall theater schedule is