Embodying Our Ancestors: Johann Montozzi-Wood’s "Grandfathered In"

Embodying Our Ancestors: Johann Montozzi-Wood’s "Grandfathered In"

“I love origin stories,” Johann Montozzi-Wood said. 

Montozzi-Wood (he/they), assistant professor of the practice in the department of Theater Studies, had just moved into a new studio and was settling in. Gentle music played, the fragrant scent of tea filled the air and large windows along one wall provided soft light. 

Johann Montozzi-Wood
In his latest project, Montozzi-Woods explores both personal and universal questions of place and belonging. (Photo courtesy of Johann Montozzi-Wood)

In the corner, a large ring to practice aerial movements hung suspended from the ceiling. A keyboard stood waiting in the middle of the floor, ready to capture his next musical idea. Montozzi-Wood, who holds degrees in both Physical Acting & Devised Performance and Musical Theater, plans to make good use of both. 

Even though the studio was new, Montozzi-Wood had already made it feel comfortable, personalized — like a home. 

Home — one’s place in this world and in the world of the imagination — is something he thinks about a lot. It informs his new project, Grandfathered In: A Concert of Scenes and Songs, a devised work in progress that explores both personal and universal questions of place and belonging. 

Grandfathered In is centered in my own curiosities around my biological family,” he explained. “I was adopted and raised by a white family in deep-south Mississippi. About three years ago, I had my ancestor DNA done and began conducting some lineage work. In this process, I came across a few interesting characters, in particular two great-grandfathers from different sides of my biracial family.” 

Montozzi-Wood’s imagination was fired. He wanted to know these ancestors in a bone-deep way that went beyond what he could glean from historical records. “I felt this distance,” he said. “I didn't have pictures of them, you know? And so, I wanted to investigate them through an embodied practice of putting on something they might wear, which led to a series of photographs.” 

Fuel Williamson, his African American ancestor, was born on a plantation in Stokes County, North Carolina. After fighting in the Civil War, he helped establish an all-Black colony in Kansas. Montozzi-Wood’s German ancestor, who he calls Dunker in Grandfathered In, left Germany in 1723 to find religious freedom in North America. 

Montozzi-Wood described Daija, the protagonist of Grandfathered In, as a non-binary, Afro-Futurist character, who encounters these ancestors through the intervention of Mo, a queer, heron-like goddess. As Mo, Montozzi-Wood leads Daija through a dream-like, fantastical world to examine grief, healing and what it means to search for oneself. 

Untitled Self-Portrait Series by Johann Montozzi-Wood
Untitled Self-Portrait Series by Johann Montozzi-Wood.

Along with co-devisers Robb Beharry (Fuel), Jessica Flemming (Daija) and Anthony Hudson (Dunker), Montozzi-Wood is looking forward to presenting Grandfathered In as a work-in-progress February 29-March 2 in the Shaefer Lab Theater

The music, composed by Montozzi-Wood and collaborators Michelle Jamail, Louis Landry, Phil Davidson and David Landes, is the most complete part of the work at this stage. “I had so much music to share,” Montozzi-Wood said. “The idea of presenting Grandfathered In at this point is to make a live recording of this concert of scenes and songs, and to see how it resonates with audiences.” 

Each of the three nights the show runs will unfold differently. “One night we might present this as a workshop, where people can respond to a scene in the moment,” he said. “Another night we might run all the way through and save detailed feedback for the end in a Q&A setting.” 

The songs aren’t what you think of as traditional musical theater pieces, Montozzi-Wood said. They each have a different style, reflecting the characters who voice them. “The characters’ songs live in different worlds." Dunker is introduced with a lively patter song containing elements from German folk music. Fuel’s song is a rap that responds to Frederick Douglass’ call for men of color to take up arms in the Civil War. 

“The heart of the work is a piece called The Ancestor’s Prayer,” Montozzi-Wood said. “I'm really excited about sharing it. It's a meditation and fantasia about rising, reemergence and resurrection. 

“I think the big question the songs in Grandfathered In ask is, ‘If the ancestors live in our bones, in our blood, are they fixed or did they evolve with us?’” 

Working on Grandfathered In has brought Montozzi-Wood closer to his great-grandfathers. “We're all part of ecologies, right? Not just economies, but part of the ecologies that entangle us with each other and the past. We're not alone.” 

Grandfathered In: A Concert of Scenes and Songs 
February 29 – March 2 at 8 pm 
Sheafer Lab Theater, Bryan University Center 
Tickets: $10 

This project received support from the Department of Theater Studies, the Emanuel Azenberg Endowment, the office of Trinity’s Dean of Humanities & Arts, The Duke Endowment Arts Fund, the Manbites Dog Theater Fund, and Queer and Trans People in Education (QTPiE).