Brittney Johnson made Broadway history from home by becoming the first Black woman cast as Glinda in the Tony award-winning musical Wicked.
Like thousands of performers and crew members she was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering theaters across the nation when she found out she’d landed the role. “I was in my apartment in LA sitting peacefully,” she told ESSENCE.
Minutes later, she was living the dream she spent hours manifesting mimicking Mariah Carey as a child. “Honestly, she taught me how to sing. I used to listen to her and try to emulate her. And I do feel like a lot of how I sing is as a result of listening to Mariah,” she said.
Article continues after video.
Wicked, which is being adapted into a film starring Cynthia Ervio and Carey collaborator Ariana Grande, arrived on Broadway in 2003. Nearly 20 years later, leading roles for Black Broadway performers are still slim. Johnson climbed the call sheet knowing the odds.
“I have always been an optimist and a realist and I think that is a result of not having as many people doing what I wanted to do to look up to.”
She controlled what she could, fully preparing for every opportunity. She attended Wicked before her final audition, pairing up with a stranger to ensure she could glean the “reference” needed to give her an edge.
“I made friends with somebody in line and he was there by himself and I was by myself. So I was like, ‘Do you wanna just put each other’s names down so that we have more of a chance of winning?’ And he won, so I got to see it,” Johnson explained.
“I never didn’t take myself seriously. There was never a point when I was like this won’t happen for me.”
Johnson had an “eye opening experience” attending an arts program at New York University. It was there that she developed appreciation for those who craft the magical emerald hued moments in Wicked.
“It was tough not being able to perform freshman year, ‘cuz that’s all you wanted to do was perform, but you had to do work study programs in other departments.” She spent time in the lighting and costume departments “seeing how long people had to stay at the theater at night tying the wires to the scaffold and making sure that everybody underneath is safe,” she shared.
Because of that experience, Johnson now understands what is needed to have the cast soar above the audience during Wicked.
“They are there hours before we arrive and they leave hours after we’re done,” she said of the backstage crew. “I’m so grateful that as an 18-year-old just learning the business and about theater in general that I had the experience of working in another department because it just gives you such a respect for what other people are doing so that you can do your job,” she said.
“You wouldn’t hear us without the sound department. You wouldn’t see us without the lighting department. You wouldn’t know us without carpentry and all the mechanics because we would’ve been hit by something backstage!”
Johnson’s family supported her dreams by enrolling her in the academic programs that led her to NYU admission. They also exposed her to the arts outside of the classroom. The first Broadway play she attended as a child was the Richard Nash musical 110 in the Shade starring ESSENCE cover star Audra McDonald.
“I am so grateful that my mom took me to go see Audra because I saw somebody that looked like me singing the way that I loved to sing and that was a first for me.”
McDonald’s journey was one of the few she could look to on her journey. “Audra still to this day is somebody that I just – I admire her so much. And I’m so grateful to her for the doors that she opened, just so that I could be here,” said Johnson.
Johnson walked through those doors and into the Broadway community confidently. Her credits include appearances in Motown The Musical, Les Misérables, and Sunset Boulevard.
“I always knew I would be successful in whatever it was that I chose to do because I am stubborn and determined and I was never told that I couldn’t by the people that loved me,” she said.
They empowered her to be her full self – coils and all. “When I was first starting in the industry, there was a time when I was rebellious and I was like, oh, you’re gonna see me and I’m gonna show up with curly hair,” she said. “I’d show up to these auditions and it would be all white women and me.”
Johnson refused to assume that she was not the ‘look’ producers were looking for, even if she was often the only Black woman in the room. “Especially for Black people, there’s a lot that we have internalized that we don’t even know we’ve internalized. There are things that we don’t even know that we have the ability to dream for, because we’ve never seen anyone have it,” she said.
“We are constantly told this is what you can be, and that’s it. And you can be at the top of your game in that thing, playing this type of character, being the sidekick you know? And we are more than that and we’ve always been more than that.”
Wicked is now on Broadway. Get tickets here.