By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Christine Toy Johnson, actor, singer, dancer, and writer, isn’t due back in Seattle for about a month, when she’ll star in the new stage musical “Come From Away.” But she’s happy to admit that she can’t wait.
“I love Seattle!” enthused Johnson, who opens in the musical at the 5th Avenue Theater on Oct. 9. “I am especially looking forward to going back to Wild Ginger, Uptown Espresso, and Mod Pizza (I’m addicted to their Paleo-friendly pizza!), and of course Pike Place Market for their salmon jerky.”
Johnson grew up just outside New York City. “I never wanted to do anything else,” she said about becoming a performer.
By age 4, she was modeling for national commercial campaigns, pushing such products as Scotchgard stain repellent and Buster Brown shoes. She recalls trying to eat Rice Krispies with chopsticks.
Growing up and working, she did not see very many Asians in theatre, film, or television. But she recalled, “One person who was out there dancing on Broadway since she was 5 was Baayork Lee, who was also in the original cast of ‘A Chorus Line.’
“I wrote to her when I was a student, asking to interview her for an essay I was writing, about role models, and I’ll never forget her generosity. To this day, she remains an inspiration, the picture of perseverance and professionalism, and a true champion for the Asian American community. I believe I learned the power of mentorship from Baayork and do my best to keep paying it forward.”
Johnson earned her undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College, and also studied Vocal Performance at the University of Southern California School of Music. She’s been a member of Actors’ Equity since the summer after graduating high school, and so far, she’s been in three Broadway musicals, and four national touring companies, including her “Come From Away” ensemble.
The musical, written by the husband-and-wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, takes its inspiration from a true story about the isolated community of Gander, Newfoundland, which played host to the world quite unexpectedly.
What started as an average day in a small town on Sept. 11, 2001, turned into an international sleep-over when 38 planes, carrying thousands of people from across the globe, were diverted to Gander’s air space in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Undaunted by culture clashes and language barriers, the people of Gander cheered the stranded travelers with music, an open bar, and the spirit of humanity as a global family.
The touring show opens in Seattle, because, in Johnson’s words, “One of our producers, Sue Frost, reminded me of the very special relationship and history that ‘Come From Away’ has with Seattle, since a pre-Broadway incarnation of the show had been done at Seattle Rep several years ago. They thought it would be a perfect place to launch the tour!”
As thrilled as she is about the musical, Johnson confessed that she almost didn’t make the rehearsal. She’s been very busy shooting a new season of “Iron Fist,” the television show, in which she plays Sherry Yang.
The popular show operates under a thick veil of secrecy, to keep spoilers from reaching the general public. After being asked to audition, Johnson explained, “I was sent a non-disclosure agreement that said I would not reveal the content of the material I had been given, two days ahead of time. All of the characters’ names (including mine) in the audition scene were fake, so as not to reveal their identities.
“I worked on the scene as I usually do, trying to identify the objectives and obstacles of the character in the given circumstances of the scene, trying to assess what drives her, and trying to figure out the tone of the show, all from the clues written on the page… The next day, I was asked to come back in so that Julie Schubert, the casting director, could give me some additional context for the character. I found out I got the job four days later. It was the best early Christmas present ever!”
When asked about how the casting of Asians in American entertainment has changed over her lifetime, Johnson allowed that she’s seen a fair amount of progress, but emphasized that much more remains to be done.
“In general, actors of color and actors with disabilities are still not being routinely cast in leading roles and are still vastly underrepresented,” she said. “The rumor that I want to dispel the most is that there aren’t enough parts or scripts for us being written. That isn’t true! There aren’t enough being produced! And this needs to be addressed.
“I think that television is ahead of the movies in terms of numbers of actors of color being cast and the diversity of roles available — but this may also be because of the sheer amount of content being created now in television. Also, a large majority of television shows take place in contemporary, urban American settings, so it’s become increasingly more difficult to ignore the fact that we exist in these worlds, and need to be portrayed in them. Still, we can do better … There has been positive change, especially in the past 10 years or so, but there certainly is a lot more room to grow!”
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.