Christine Toy Johnson
Don’t go where you’re tolerated. Go where you’re celebrated.
That is Christine Toy Johnson’s motto in life. What a great quote to start this chapter with for a person who I am quickly becoming a big fan of. Christine took on the role of Dolly Levi in a concert production of Hello, Dolly! presented for two nights only, April 29th and May 6th in 2013. This was presented by Baayork Lee as part of her National Asian Artists Project (NAAP) and directed by Lee Roy Reams with musical staging by Randy Slovacek. Christine Toy Johnson is a three-time Broadway star, who wanted nothing else as a child but to be on the musical stage. Johnson has produced and directed the award winning film Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story, worked on television’s Ugly Betty, Law and Order, and Crossing Jordan, and on stage in The Music Man. Most importantly, Johnson has maintained a high devotion to advocating inclusion in the arts (Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and Actor’s Equity), and has in fact made her way into the multicultural drama curriculum of Wesleyan University.
To know Christine is to know a true whirling dervish. I was able to slow her down for a small window of time last week to discuss all things Christine. I hope you find her as fascinating as I do and I hope that you will join me on April 29th, at the Signature Theater in New York, as we celebrate the latest in a long line of great Dolly Levis!
Christine would like to see inclusion EVERYWHERE. People of all colors, stripes, persuasions, included with boundaries disappearing in the arts and theater.
What first draws Christine to a project is the story, the heart of the story. When she cares about the characters, the message, and an overall feeling she gets from it, she is drawn in. When it is a musical, the music and lyrics also play into that.
Christine feels that one of the reasons she has been able to stay in this business for so many years is that she is “pathologically optimistic.” There is also a fluidity and being able to reinvent herself. She is open to all kinds of opportunities and she keeps going with that. She has worked as a professional actress her entire adult life.
Being in this profession, members of the Asian community, especially women, are always working against the odds. About eleven years ago, Christine started writing. At first, she was writing plays for herself to create opportunities for herself. She quickly went past that and fell in love with the idea of creating these stories. It is now a very important part of her present and her future.
Baayork Lee has been a personal hero of Christine’s in the arts. When Christine was growing up in Westchester County and coming to New York City to see Broadway shows with her mom, all she ever desired to do was become an actress.
She had very few role models as far as Asian American actresses were concerned. Baayork was someone that Christine saw and immediately thought either consciously or subconsciously that this was someone who inspired her.
The day of this interview was one of those rare days when she didn’t have outside appointments, but she still had a very full day PRIOR to our interview. Every morning starts with writing. At the time of this interview, she was working on a new musical which meant working on new songs. This was part of the BMI workshop. She was exploring how to make her story deeper. In addition to this, she was learning three new shows. She goes daily to the gym to keep her body in shape. These are all the things she does on a daily basis. She hopes that it all adds up to make her a better artist.
She reads, talks to people, and keeps her eyes open. That is something she tries to do every day.
Christine, luckily, has had the full support of her parents from the very beginning. She is so tremendously blessed to have the kind of family that has encouraged her. They have never discouraged her from going into such a difficult profession. They have been there cheering her on in every show or production that she has been involved in. Her feeling of “anything is possible” comes from them. Having that support has really been key to having a great outlook on this business.
Christine’s husband has also been a major support. Not only is he a personal cheerleader, but he also has a great eye on her dual careers as both actress and writer. He is a fantastic sounding board. Christine started working professionally when she was very young. There were people along the way who set the bar for how she looks at the business. One person in particular was a wonderful actress named Jeanne Lehman, who has appeared with Carol Channing on the road and worked a lot with Lee Roy Reams. She was in the show in which Christine got her Equity card, South Pacific, and she played Nellie Forbush. Christine remembers watching the way she interacted with others both on and off stage. It was always done with grace, integrity, and dignity. Those were attributes Christine desired to adopt in her life as an artist. Christine always credits her with giving her such a strong role model of what it is like to be a professional. They are still very close friends.
As stated earlier, there are a few projects on various burners right now. On the writing front, she is excited to now be a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, writing lyrics with some truly fantastic up and coming composers. Performance wise, EYE D, her documentary-style theatre piece, had its debut at Symphony Space/Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre. Combining dramatized interviews (done with over 50 Asian American, Latin and African-American women), song, and spoken word, EYE D takes a look at real stories about race, ethnicity and the beauty of Michelle Obama, and features Musical Direction by Amanda Morton, with Sarita Covington, Maria-Jose Fajardo, Deidre Goodwin, Jaygee Macapugay, Suni Reyes, and Dawn Saito.
She is working on someone else’s piece for a festival, and the already mentioned Hello, Dolly! She is very excited about playing Dolly.
Christine’s biggest vice is worrying too much. She finds that she is worrying when she really doesn’t need to. That’s one thing she doesn’t admire about herself. Her greatest virtue is that she is a really good friend. She has the capacity to give of herself fully to a cause that she really does believe in.
When there is something that she really desires to see mended, she jumps right in with both feet on the ground.
Perspective and gratitude are two key ingredients to a long sustained career in this business. Often our dreams coming true do not look like what we imagined them to be, we need to be grateful for what comes our way. We need to appreciate all the opportunities and possibilities for creative grace and joy. That has been really key to Christine’s longevity. When the focus is on what hasn’t been achieved or what should have been or what should have been gotten, that can get you off track. Staying centered and keeping things in perspective is very important.
If Christine could go back to any year in her life, what year she would like to go back to and why? She says she is perfectly happy where she is RIGHT NOW.
Christine does watch TV but not on a steady basis. Her favorite show, for a long time, was a show that had just stopped taping, 30 Rock. She was very lucky to do an episode and do a scene with Tina Fey.
When Christine is working, she keeps with her photographs of her husband and her adopted, CUTE, Westie in her dressing room. That really makes her happy.
She also has these at her desk where she spends a lot of time writing. She has a few items that make her happy to look at them.
On her desk is a bobble-head doll of Obama from Hawaii. She got this right after he was elected President the first time. It says Hawaii’s Number One Son. She also has a small Buddha that she got in Cambodia that has the symbol that means No Fear. She has a little Lilo and Stitch statue because she is a fan. Now that she has a Westie, she has a little “Westie” on her desk. All of this connects her to joy.
I asked Christine to weigh in on the importance of Arts in Education. She says it is absolutely vital to a person’s growth as a human being. There are different arms of the arts.
Theater, for example, is an amazing tool to not only put a mirror up to society, but to make us think about our own place in society, how we interact with each other, how we perceive others, how they perceive us, how all of those things add up to how we carry ourselves in the world.
Christine has always thought that the power of theater is terribly under estimated. In her own work, she does a lot of advocacy for inclusion in the arts through three different areas. One area is through Actors Equity Association.
She is part of the elected leadership there. She is the co-chair of the Equal Employment Opportunities Committee. They are fostering initiatives that encourage inclusion. In her writing, she has done a lot of projects that she has brought to schools and colleges because she thinks that teaching through the arts is an amazing gift to have and to continue to nurture. Growing up in a suburb of New York, Christine was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel into the city and be surrounded by culture. She was always going to see shows, and going to museums, and taking in all of the arts that were available to her in the city. She was able to take advantage of what was standard back then, but is no longer, art classes and drama classes and being able to see the world through the lens of art. It is an amazing thing.
Certainly, there have been various projects that Christine has been involved in that might have not been turning out as she had hoped. As an actress, it is Christine’s job as one of the story tellers to make it work somehow. Whenever something has gone south, Christine does tend to be the company cheerleader. She has this philosophy that she signed up for it so it is her job to make it work.
She is not trying to be a Pollyanna about it but she would rather find the good in the situation.
She tries to ride that wave instead of going in the opposite direction. We do have opportunities where we see a fork in the road. We can CHOOSE to go down the road of misery. There will be a lot of company that way! Or go down the road in which you say, “What am I going to do to make this work?” Or “How am I going to make this work? I’ve never played a character like this before so I’m really going to concentrate on that.” OR “It’s the paycheck. I’m happy that I’m paying a bill.”
There are various things that we all can find for ourselves. At the risk of, once again, sounding like a Pollyanna, it is important to figure it out.
Does Christine believe in reincarnation? That is a very interesting question for her right now. She is writing a play that deals with that theme. She is a very spiritual person. She’s not very religious. She does believe that our souls and spirits do find a way to live on.
Christine is most proud of still being here and having forged a life that balances a lot of things that she loves to do with a lot of people that she loves to do them with.
Christine would like to be remembered as someone who really loves the theater and lived to make it more inclusive.
Thank you Christine Toy Johnson for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!