Christine Toy Johnson

Becoming a Role Model for Asian-Americans: Interview with Broadway actress Christine Toy Johnson

by Julien Touafek

Broadway actress Christine Toy Johnson has become the role model she never had growing up as an Asian-American aspiring towards a career in the performing arts. Born and bred in the suburbs of New York City, Christine was a performer from an early age. She began modeling when she was four for national campaigns such as Buster Brown, Life Cereal and Scotchguard. She got her Equity card the summer she graduated from high school, playing “Liat” in a production of SOUTH PACIFIC, later attending the University of Southern California School of Music for Vocal Performance, graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and much later the Screenwriting Program at NYU. She has appeared extensively on stage, in film and television. Broadway, National Tour and Off-Broadway credits include the revivals of THE MUSIC MAN (“Ethel Toffelmier”), GREASE (“Patty”), FLOWER DRUM SONG (“Rita Liang”), MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (cast album), PACIFIC OVERTURES, and CATS (“Sillabub”). Nearly 100 film and television credits include 666 PARK AVENUE, 30 ROCK, UGLY BETTY, LAW AND ORDERS: SVU, and AS THE WORLD TURNS. An avid anti-discrimination advocate, her recent awards include: placing as a semifinalist for the Ford Foundations “Leadership for a Changing World” Award in 2001, the 2012 Wai Look Award for Outstanding Service in the Arts, in 2010 the Japanese-American Citizen’s League award for “exemplary dedication and leadership”, and in 2013 the Rosetta Lenoire Award for “outstanding contributions to diversity in the arts” from Actors’ Equity Association. She is on the board of the Tony Award honored Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, serves as a nationally elected Councilor of Actors’ Equity and is co-chair of their Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. Also an award-winning screenwriter, she has written 11 plays and a collection of her written work was included in the Library of Congress Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection in 2010. Her award-winning documentary film, TRANSCENDING THE WAT MISAKA STORY, has been recognized internationally at film festivals, in the media (including the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and the International Herald Tribune), and by President Obama himself. She talked about her path as an artist, her work as an advocate for equality, and the remarkable stories that have shaped her career.

Julien Touafek: With all your involvements in various advocacy groups (Actor’ Equity, Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, etc.), at what point in your career did you decide to be involved in advocating for Asian-Americans and bridging this gap that you identified?

Christine Toy Johnson: You know, it sort of evolved because I started working as a very young person. What’s interesting to me when I reflect about it as that I grew up in the suburbs of Manhattan going to Broadway shows, and never wanted to do anything but be in a Broadway show. I was a child model. I started doing shows in Kindergarten. I did shows for my parents’ guests. And then started doing community theatre and then professional work when I was still in high school. And when I reflect upon it I kind of don’t know how I thought it was possible because there really weren’t a lot of Asian-American role models. But it didn’t seem to enter my mind. So I kept studying, and I was a dancer, I always just kept dreaming of being in a Broadway show. And then when I got out of college and started working in earnest to make a living, I started seeing right away that I wasn’t fitting the stereotypes. But it still didn’t really hit me until I started breaking the stereotypes. There was a lot talk at the time, which would have been 1990, about the “Miss Saigon” production when they hired Jonathan Pryce to play the engineer and he, basically, wore yellow face in the London production, and that was a very big turning point for the Asian-American community about authenticity; Asian-American people playing Asian-American roles in the theatre which was a very big controversy. And, I recall, when they were bringing Jonathan Pryce over from London to do the show in New York, Actors’ Equity at first refused the rights to bring him in. And so he canceled the production. Whether it was a bluff or not, who knows. Anyway, they worked it out. Jonathan Pryce came over, won a TONY award, but it still was a very big deal. And it ran for ten years. But ever since then, every engineer after that

[Jonathan Price’s role] was played by an Asian-American actor. So, that was a big moment in the community.

Shortly after that is when I started getting involved on the Council at Equity as part of the elected leadership and also I started doing some non-traditional cast roles, like Julie in Carousel. And I started feeling like I wanted to shine a light on them because it was showing something positive that was happening. And so I think that’s when I started to think about speaking up in terms of advocacy on a positive note, and once I started to do more traditionally non-cast roles the more I realized it was something that was difficult to get and needed to be talked about.

JT: You mentioned that, as a young person, you didn’t have any Asian-American role models. Where did it come from that you decided having a career in the performing arts as an Asian-American was even possible?

CTJ: Well, I think it was just because I loved it. And my parents never said that I couldn’t do anything. They never put up any obstacle to anything in my whole life. So, I think I grew up in this environment where I was like: “Yeah, I love that. I’m going to go do that.” Now, to be fair, there was Baayork Lee, who’s been a friend ever since, or knew that we had a gap in time where we didn’t see each other, but she was the original Connie in “A Chorus Line”. So, she was out there and she was dancing since she was five years old, but she wasn’t doing, necessarily, the stuff that I identified with. When I saw “A Chorus Line” I wanted to be Cassie. [We both laugh.]

JT: So, when you did get out and were auditioning, were there any circumstances at the start of your career that kept you from getting roles or auditions?

CTJ: For a long time I wasn’t even seen for anything. I wouldn’t even get in the room. As a matter of fact, my younger friends now are seen at auditions as a matter of course – which is awesome. But back in those days, I had just switched agents in ’91, and when my new agent called me to tell me that I had an audition for Julie in “Carousel” at the Hangar Theatre, I really was surprised. I really said: “Wait, I actually have an appointment. And they’re really going to see me? They’re going let me audition for it?” And so I remember going, feeling a little ashamed because I thought the other women there would look at me like: “What is she doing here?” And I get in the room and people didn’t go running, screaming from the theatre. It was actually a really well received production. Then what happens is, I think, people feel that they have permission to cast that way. Someone once referred to me as the “poster child for non-traditional casting”, and so I did all these Soprano roles all over the country. And, I think, like I said, once someone says: “Oh, you did that. I can hire you for this.” And so I started to feel like the more I was speaking up about it in a positive way, that was my style of advocacy. My advocacy has evolved over time through experience and necessity, but I think at the time I identified this ability to talk to people about the positive aspects of it; at the good things that would happen if non-traditional casting had happened, if there were more inclusion, if we were reflecting society more as it really is. And less on the militant, victimized, “we’ve been wronged” point of view; which has a place, too, but is not my style.

JT: What do you think you bring to the stage in a non-traditionally cast production that an audience member wouldn’t see in a traditionally cast show?

CTJ: I always feel that, to me, the arts have this opportunity to get people to think about things, maybe, in a different way – by seeing a play, or hearing a song – that puts a human face on a set of circumstance, and opens up your mind to different cultures and different ways of thinking. It’s part of being an artist and a writer. You’re trying to empathize and understand the human condition: What makes a person do what they do? And I think that’s what a non-traditionally cast show offers is, really, reflecting society and the world as it is today.

JT: I think this is a good segue for you to talk about your documentary film that you produced with your husband, award-winning filmmaker Bruce Johnson, TRANSCENDING – THE WAT MISAKA STORY, and specifically, how you came to this story and how have you been changed and inspired by seeing this story told?

CTJ: Well, Wat Misaka is 89 years old now. He lives in Salt Lake City. He was the first non-Caucasian person to play pro-basketball in the 1947 Knicks, three years before the first African Americans played. He was a big college star for the University of Utah in ’44 and ’47, which is really significant when you think about the time. We were in the middle of WWII. They won the NCAA in ’44 and then the NIT in ’47. In between he went off to serve in the Army. So, that’s sort of the nugget of the story.

I was helping produce and sing in a concert for some friends of an organization in San Francisco called the Japanese Culture and Community Center of Northern California. So, I was helping produce these concerts called “Asian-Americans on Broadway”. And we were in the Executive Director’s office printing out our boarding passes to go home and my husband noticed this photograph of an Asia-American basketball player, and you could tell that it was from a different period, because of the dress, and so he started asking questions. I had just written a sports screenplay, and Bruce, my husband, says to me: “Would you be interested in writing another sports screenplay?” And I say: “Well, I don’t know.” I had just finished this one and, you know, and he says: “Paul has just told me this story about this guy Wat Misaka.” And so I’m intrigued. Why haven’t we ever heard of him? That’s a pretty big barrier to break. And so I went home and started researching him, and I decided I needed to tell this story.

So, I started talking to some people and they said, you know, you should do an oral history. And so once we realized that we were going out there to interview him, we decided to just make it a documentary. And from there the circles just kept getting bigger. We had our first screening in 2008 in Salt lake City, it was an official selection for the Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2009, we won award for direction from the Roving Eye Documentary Film Festival, Sports Illustrated helped us get a profile of Wat in the Basketball Hall of Fame, every major sports publication had featured Wat, the Knicks honored him center court in 2009 at Madison Square Garden, President Obama invited Wat to a ceremony at the White House and mentioned him in his speech.

And, you know, it really means a lot to me to acknowledge people when they do something great. And it was really bothering me – in the biggest sense of the word – that this man was not recognized for breaking his barriers. He was sort of reduced to a footnote in some books. He did not last long in the Knicks, and that’s probably a large part of the reason that he was reduced to a footnote. But I still felt like this is significant, and it was a barrier that was broken and we needed to do something about it. We did a screening of the film in Sacramento, and when I saw these little kids lining up to get his autograph, I just thought: this is a seminal point in my life, because something that Bruce and I really believed in, we worked our butts off to make it happen on a wing and a prayer basically, is having this impact; it’s bringing this man to the forefront in our community, and I’m not even Japanese-American, but there’s something about the shared Asian-American experience of having to overcome obstacles that every immigrant community has had. I just felt that this is so important that we brought the story out and these kids are seeing what’s possible for them. And I turn to Bruce and say: “If nothing else happens with this film, this is why we did this. This man now sees that his legacy is present for all people to see. And to have him know that: You did something that is meaningful and will last forever, because you broke that barrier.”

JT: You often tell people to “go where you are celebrated, not just tolerated”. How do you maintain your positivity and vision in all your work?

CTJ: I think part of it is the idea of surrounding yourself with people who are positive as well. See that’s part of it. Because, you know, we all have these hopes and dreams and goals, and if you’re in the right environment you can be put down pretty quickly, and you can lose faith pretty easily. So I think part of it is surrounding yourself with people who are as eager as you are to dwell in possibility. That’s another thing that I love to say. Because, really, the truth is, and I’m not a Pollyanna, but I think part of the good thing about being older and being in this business for so long is that I’ve had a lot of disappointments and I’ve noticed how easy it could be to just give up. You reach many forks in the road at any given time and you can choose to go down the path of self sabotage and losing faith in yourself and your ability to make something happen, or you can go the other way and try to explore and maximize your potential. I’m always thinking about that, too – and figure out what’s possible. And that has been tempered with a lot, a lot, a lot of disappointment and still believing that I have something to say. And trying to find new ways to say it all the time.

Someone asked me in an interview recently, when I was doing Dolly: “You know you’re a writer, you’re an actor, you’re blah, blah, blah, so what would you call yourself, and don’t say you’re everything.” And I said: “I’m a storyteller”. And whether that’s through my acting, my writing, my singing, my directing, my producing, or whatever, I think that trying to surround myself with the kind of energy that nurtures that vision for possibility is what’s at the root of that saying. It came from one of my first screenwriting teachers, and it really hit me because you really could go and dwell in these places where people are like: “Oh yeah, you’re alright.” But why would you do that? Why are you doing that? There’s always that question, you know, in the arts especially: Why would you put yourself through the hardship that you do? And the answer is because you have to, because there’s nothing more satisfying than having a creative response to a problem. I’ll say that. You might not be able to fix everything but if you can have a creative response then it’s going to make life a lot better. For you and other people.

JT: Hearing about all your accomplishments and the path that you’ve forged, it seems to me that you’ve become the Asian-American role model you lacked as a child. How does that feel, and do you have a message for those young people that look at you and are inspired?

CTJ: The only reason I’m not completely embarrassed by that question is that I have been hearing that more and more lately from young people who come up to me and say: “Now I feel like I can do it.” And, you know, it’s amazing. And I hope they can. And I usually tell people to just keep being open to possibility and to make sure you’re up for the challenge. So, to me that means a lot of different things; it means working as hard as you possibly can to not only be the best artist you can be but to be the best person you can be. So, stay open to other points of view and have a life and enjoy it and enrich yourself by looking around. And don’t take “no” for an answer, because I think that’s really easy for any of us to do that. And you can’t let all the negative stuff squash you.

So, I guess I tell people that if you really have a passion to do this and to express yourself through art, you have to find a way to do it. And it probably will look different than you once imagined it would. All of my dreams that have come true so far have not looked like what I imagined when I was that little girl watching the TONY awards from my parents’ living room. And that’s actually kind of great, because that means there were things that I didn’t even imagine. And to try to stay present. It’s really hard these days. We can be a million other places instead of doing this. [Pointing to us talking.] Or, looking outside and saying: “Oh, the air smells like this today,” or “that does this to me.” To really stay present and take it all in.