Growing up, Phyllis Johnson says she always loved story telling, but didn’t know how that would play out in her future.
“But in college I found that acting was the best way for me to do that,” says Johnson, now appearing in “Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night” at InterAct Theatre through June 24.
Today, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Johnson explains that as a girl she was read to a lot, feeling herself wrapped in a kind of visual communication and desperately wanting to participate. And although she danced for some years, she soon discovered that acting was the best medium by which to express herself.
“I have a twin sister who is also an actress and a filmmaker, and one day I watched her in a production of ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.’ I think every woman of color discovered acting through that play, and I was no exception. For me, it was a pivotal moment in my life, and that piece and the theater itself became something I aspired to,” Johnson explained.
And so began her personal theatrical journey. Appearing in feature films, she also appeared on Broadway in such productions as “A Naked Girl On The Appian Way.” Off-
Broadway credits include “Yokastas” and “Blue Before Morning,” for which she received the New York Innovative Theatre Award Nomination for Best Featured Actress, Best Ensemble. Johnson also appeared on television in “Law & Order,” “As The World Turns” and more.
Today, in her current role as Jules, Johnson portrays an African-American painter who has fled the U.S. under mysterious circumstances and embraced a whole new life and family in Iceland — the whitest place on earth. But several years into her idyllic reinvented life, a confluence of extraordinary events threaten to unravel her psyche: Barack Obama’s meteoric presidential campaign makes Jules more homesick than ever.
Then, her recently out-of-work banker husband, Olafur, presents their biracial daughter with a shocking present, and an inscrutable African-American visitor shows up at Jules’ studio. The collision of events provokes her conflicted sense of racial and personal identity, and brings the secrets of her past out into the open.
“This is a very challenging role,” Johnson says. “My character is a very complex woman and I’ve got to bring that out to the audience. She has secrets. And it’s almost as if there are three difference conversations that she’s involved in. The big challenge is to personalize each one and, in doing so, see how that works out with this woman in each emotional state so that her final experience makes sense.”
Although this role does call for an African-American actress, Johnson herself feels she’s been very lucky over the years and appeared in many roles that have not pigeonholed her.
“Every African-American actor will tell you how frustrating it is that often our talents are based on the way we look and not necessarily our real abilities or our life experiences,” Johnson reveals. “Often times, we are so pigeonholed, that a role is based even on the tone of our skin color. It hasn’t happened often to me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
Women, especially, Johnson continues, can even be judged on their looks alone. “Sometimes the projects I am interested in can be unavailable to me because the people producing the show want someone with a more commercial look or less of one than what they see in me. But, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes jump over the hurdles. I know I’m always looking for the next role I can do where I can express myself.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 568-8079.
“Permanent Collection,” an award-winning play inspired by events surrounding Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, is being staged by InterAct Theatre April 5-May 5. The show continues InterAct Theatre Company’s 25th anniversary season as it grapples with conflicting perspectives on race and art.
As relevant now as when it was first produced in 2003, the play explores the controversy provoked when a suburban museum’s newly appointed African-American executive director puts forward a proposal to change the permanent collection.
Deftly maneuvering through the emotionally charged conflicts that ensue, the play compels us to question our consumption of fine art while engaging issues of racial politics and journalistic integrity.
Lynette Freeman takes the role of Kanika Weaver, assistant to the foundation’s executive director. Freeman, who holds an MFA from Brown University/Trinity Rep Conservatory, acknowledges that she knew nothing of the Barnes Foundation or the controversy that surrounded it until she got the role.
“Kanika is new to her job and a wonderful assistant for Sterling North, the new executive director,” Freeman said. “But this is a new environment for her and a new line of work, and working for Sterling begins to open her eyes to a new way of dong things. Actually, she just wants to exist and be herself, but throughout the play she begins to realize what kind of place this is. Many of the issues in the play bring up things that force her to figure out what she stands for on a variety of things.”
Founded in 1922, the foundation became embroiled in controversy in the 1990s due to a financial crisis partly related to longstanding visitor restrictions imposed by the original trust and to the location of its facility in Lower Merion. With North’s discovery of significant African sculptures tucked away in storage and his proposal to add them to the public galleries, a bitter struggle ensues. “Permanent Collection” is an examination of racial politics that ultimately asks how much space — literally and figuratively — the white world gives to African Americans. And what is the cost of failing to view the world through another’s eyes.
Said Freeman, “Looking at race through the artistic lens provides a forum to view different people’s experience with it. Kanika, having been through higher education, is able to look a the world from a very intellectual perspective because over the years she’s had lots of friends of all different races, so race is not necessarily a point of focus for her.
“But,” Freeman continued, “she soon realizes that as a Black woman she almost has to walk this line between what is expected of her because she is Black, and what is expected of her because she’s so progressive. Kanika just wants to be the young woman she is and not be embroiled in controversy. Ultimately, she bristles at the fact that she is, as Sterling tries to remind her she has to pick a side although she doesn’t want to.”
Interestingly, Freeman says she’s able to identify with her character. “I feel I’m very much like Kanika in many ways. The fact is that I have grown up with a multicultural perspective, but at the same time also coming from an Ivy League education. Many of the conversations that come up in the play, are things I have been privy to numerous times in my life.”
Often, she concluded, she tries to avoid too much controversy by remembering what her grandfather told her when she was quite young. “In terms of politics especially, he always said to let things that are important to other people be important to them. I carry that thought with me in all aspects of my life. Of course, if I see a wrong being done, I will step up and say something, but I know I can’t really change others.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 568-8079.