SHIFTING PERCEPTIONS

My road to being an advocate for inclusion in the entertainment industry has been long and winding.

Tina Toy Rice Krispies advertisement

Back in 1991, I was cast as “Julie Jordan” in the Hangar Theater’s production of CAROUSEL (directed by Robert Moss and Andrew Grose) at a time when even getting an audition for a role like this was a very rare occasion. I remember feeling slightly ashamed at being at the audition, as if I didn’t really have the right to be there - even though I was super prepared and highly invested in telling the story as well as I possibly could. When I got the role (!), I also began to understand that not only did I have the right to be given a shot at playing parts that had not previously been cast with people who looked like me, but I had the right to be the best that I could be, and tell stories with all the tools I had trained my whole life to use. I wanted to shout my discovery from the rooftops - and did - thus beginning my advocacy on behalf of myself and also other artists who were being excluded largely from being part of the American landscape of storytelling. 

~ Early modeling job for Rice Krispies, setting up some early stereotypes...

Christine Toy Johnson as Julie Jordan in the Hangar Theater production of Carousel

It has always been important to me to begin with pointing out the positive effects of inclusion (“No one died when I played ‘Julie Jordan’!” and more seriously, “In having a multi-cultural cast tell this story, a multi-cultural audience could see themselves in it  - and our perceptions of who we are and what we can do had a chance to be shifted.”)

 

I began serving the membership of Actors’ Equity Association as a volunteer member of the elected leadership in 1992 and have been the National chair of the association’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee since 2014, and before that, Co-chair of the Eastern regional EEOC since 1998. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done so far, including negotiating strong non-discrimination/inclusive casting rulebook language and actively building bridges between our members and our collaborators and employers, all with an eye towards increasing the pathways to inclusive hiring.

Bruce Alan Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson in West Side Story at Sacramento Light Opera
Christine Toy Johnson as Patty Simcox in the Broadway Revival of Grease!

~ Playing "Maria" in WEST SIDE STORY at (what was then called) Sacramento Light Opera also changed my life, introducing me to the love of my life, Bruce Johnson! Playing this part was a dream come true! Getting to sing that gorgeous score with Bruce, and getting to use so many facets of my training and passions was amazing. (Also, fun fact: did you know that Puerto Rico has a history of rich cultural diversity that began with the arrival in the 16th-19th centuries of families from such places as China, Portugal, Germany, Corsica, France, Ireland and Scotland?)

~ Though playing "Patty Simcox" in the 1994 Broadway revival of GREASE! wasn't my most positive or happiest experience, it's meaningful to me that I had an opportunity to play a role that's not usually cast with someone who looks like me, especially on Broadway and especially at that time. (No other future replacements in this company looked like me.)

Christine Toy Johnson as Ethel Toffelmeir in The Music Man on Broadway

~On the opposite end of the happy, positive experience spectrum was playing "Ethel Toffelmeir" in the 2000 Broadway revival of THE MUSIC MAN. Being part of this company (for me, beginning in November of 2001) was incredible. This truly American story resonated deeply in our hearts at a time when our beloved New York City was still aching from the losses of 9/11.

Christine Toy Johnson pictured with her parens after receiving th Roseetta LeNoire Award from Actors' Equity Association

~Receiving the Rosetta LeNoire Award (acknowledging "outstanding artistic contributions to the universality of the human spirit in American theatre) from Actors' Equity Association in 2013 was one of the greatest honors of my life, and getting to share this experience with my parents is something I'll never forget.
 

In February of 2016, I joined the volunteer elected leadership of the Dramatists Guild, and in 2017 initiated (and became national chair of) the guild’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, promoting the core belief that theatre should be a diverse and inclusive place. I’m intent on continuing to open up conversations about how to do this, wherever I travel.

 

Though there has been so much progress since I sat in that audition waiting room feeling terribly self-conscious about the shape of my eyes, there’s so much work to be done. I remain ever hopeful that the healing power of art can teach us empathy and compassion, leading to more and more inclusion. To be continued...

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