Christine Toy Johnson is an actress, writer, and activist based in New York City. Her upbringing in NYC exposed her to the world of theatre, and inspired her to begin auditioning. With her equity card in hand after graduating from high school, Johnson went on to join Broadway’s The Music Man (recent revival) and the national tours of Come From Away and Flower Drum Song. In addition to her impressive resume, Johnson explored writing her own shows! Her original work includes No Wave (with Charles Randolph-Wright), The Secret Wisdom of Trees, Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom, Barcelona (with Jason Ma), Till Soon Anne (with Bobby Cronin), and Paper Son. On top of all this, she “was recently elected treasurer of the Dramatists Guild” as the very first Asian American guild officer, serves as the “Chair of the Guild’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee,” and co-founded the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC)! Her advice to young artists? “Do the work and keep showing up!” Read on to learn more about Christine Toy Johnson and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Christine Toy Johnson
Hometown: Somers, New York
Current City: New York City
Working on 2 new musicals and a screenplay as a writer, directing one new short play I’ve written for the National Women’s Theatre Fringe Festival to premiere in July, preparing to go back on the road as an actor with the First National tour of Come From Away.
What are some of your favorite credits/projects?
As an actor -- Broadway: the last revival of The Music Man, National tours: Come From Away, Flower Drum Song, TV: recurring roles on Marvel’s Iron Fist, The Americans, Regional: Sunday in the Park With George at the Guthrie. As a writer -- No Wave with Charles Randolph-Wright, The Secret Wisdom of Trees, Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom, Barcelona with Jason Ma, Till Soon Anne with Bobby Cronin, Paper Son. As a director and producer -- Transcending – The Wat Misaka Story (co-directed with my husband Bruce Johnson), a documentary feature about Wat Misaka, the first non-Caucasian pro-basketball player, a Japanese American champion from the 1947 Knicks.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Do the work and keep showing up! Try to keep centered on why you love what you do and not how everyone else is doing it. Know that your dreams coming true often look very, very different from how you first imagined them.
How did you get your start?
I grew up in the suburbs of NYC, so I started seeing/dreaming of Broadway from a very young age and studying acting, singing, and dancing at a very young age. Also, auditioning at a very young age. I got my Equity card the summer I graduated from high school, and against all odds, I’ve been making my living in this industry ever since.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
Being in The Music Man shortly after 9/11 was so moving and meaningful because of the resilient spirit it seemed to embody. I believe a different kind of resiliency will be reflected and embodied in Come From Away when we return from the pandemic, which is ironically set in the days following 9/11.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
Overcoming other people’s preconceived notions and assumptions about who I am and what I can do.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I was a child model when I was 4 years old. One of the most memorable shoots I did was eating Rice Krispies with chopsticks, and though I was only 4 years old, I knew something was really off about the request to do so. Some of the money I earned from the year and a half I did this went towards paying my initiation dues to Actors’ Equity the summer I graduated from high school.
Do you have any organizations or non-profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
Yes! I was recently elected treasurer of the Dramatists Guild, the trade association that advocates for writers in the theatre (re: copyright, contracts, retaining ownership of our work etc.). I’m proud to say that I am the first Asian American officer of the Guild in its 100-year history. I also am Chair of the Guild’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, and I host their podcast “Talkback” on the Broadway Podcast network. I’m a co-founding member of AAPAC (the Asian American Performers Action Coalition), whose mission includes increasing representation of Asian American artists on NYC stages. Check out our new Visibility Report at www.aapacnyc.org
Who do you admire?
So many people. My parents for being intrepid and generous and supportive beyond belief. I recently lost my father, who overcame an unbelievable number of obstacles throughout his life with the utmost grace and dignity. I also admire anyone who has the tenacity and courage to keep showing up and doing what they love, accompanied by grace, kindness and compassion.
Do you have any mentors?
There have been so many people who have encouraged me along the way, and whose confidence in me mentored me into always taking the next creative step: Joanna Merlin, Jamal Joseph, Baayork Lee, and John Weidman are four people that immediately come to mind.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
I was one of those kids who put on dramatizations of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for my parents’ captive holiday guests, and wrote and produced a play in the 6th grade in which the lead character (played by me, of course) won a Tony Award… so this love affair with the arts has been going on for a long time!
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?
See above. I think there was never any other thought in my head!
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
I know that my fortitude and resilience (which are essential in show business) come from them!
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Know and trust that your dreams coming true will look very different from how you first imagined them to be (see above advice to young people today).
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
Attention to detail, unapologetic workaholism, diplomacy, patience, and compassion
Where did you study at?
I’ve studied acting throughout my life; highlights were at Circle in the Square when I was a teenager, then much later with Joanna Merlin and Lloyd Richards at the Actors Center (my 2 most influential acting teachers), and writing with Jamal Joseph and John Truby (again, my 2 most influential writing teachers). I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a BA and studied voice there with the late great Paul Ukena. I also studied singing with the wonderful Shirley Close and for a decade with late great Tony McDowell. Phil Hall is my go-to vocal coach for any challenging new material. I also studied ballet and jazz for many years with many masterful people.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
I think one of my proudest moments was seeing Wat Misaka (about whom my husband and I made a feature length documentary, called Transcending – the Wat Misaka Story www.watmisaka.com ) be honored center court at Madison Square Garden, 62 years after he broke the color barrier in professional basketball as the first non-Caucasian player in what was then the BAA. Because our film was able to grab the attention of many people (including the NBA and the Knicks), we saw Wat receive a lot of different acknowledgements for his achievements which had previously been unsung.
What are some goals you hope to achieve?
I still dream of winning a Tony award as an actor or writer someday. I’d also like to have a screenplay produced, and a play produced on Broadway. I’d like to be a series regular on a TV show. I’d like to stop having to convince people that diversity and inclusion in the arts are vital to creating greater harmony in the world.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love being able to express what I care about through storytelling, connecting with the humanity of it all, and having an impact on those who bear witness to it.
If you’ve crossed the table from performing to being on a creative team, what made you take the leap, and how did it change your way of thinking?
Like many actors of color who have added writing to their lives, I began writing because I wasn’t seeing stories about people who looked like me in film, theatre, or television. I love being both a generative and interpretive artist and the power of storytelling to shift perceptions of who we are and what we can do.
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?
Someone once asked me how I would like to be remembered. Though at the time it seemed a bit morbid, my answer is still the same: I’d like to be remembered as someone who was truly grateful for her life in the theatre and who worked really, really hard to make it a more inclusive place.
To find out more about Christine, please visit her at:
Twitter & Instagram: @CToyJ
Photo credit: Bruce Johnson
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