Marjorie Johnson After 40 Years on Stage becomes An Overnight Star

It’s taken Marjorie Johnson almost 40 years to become an overnight Star. But Stardom seems to be the least of her goals. “Acting,” Marjorie reminisces, “has been sort of a divine intervention in my pursuit of ‘something more’”.

In the mid 1960s, one promising career for pretty, smart and ambitious young ladies, with a high school diploma, was to obtain employment in the airline industry as Flight Attendants (Stewardesses). So, Marjorie enrolled in the Hartford Airline Personnel School. The Hartford promised its graduates they would secure employment for them in the airline industry. But Americana 1965 was: the height of the Civil Rights movement; people of color demanding equal employment opportunities, among many things; and, pretty, young black girls getting the runaround. Meanwhile, Negroes were picketing Trailways Transportation System for having no visible black employees at its bus stations. The Hartford saw an opportunity to help solve Trailways dilemma—it  offered its graduating black flight attendants an “opportunity” of employment with Trailways instead of in the airlines industry. (5-Star interstate bus companies employed hostesses as well.) Marjorie accepted a job, but she quickly found herself at a ticket counter with new recruits whose presence contradicted racial discrimination allegations against Trailways. After that issue was assuaged, Marjorie segued to “fill-in” Bus Hostess—she even got to serve Lady Bird Johnson, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s First Lady. The provisional positions helped her to realize, early on, that she didn’t want to be a glorified waitress on a bus, nor in the air. So, Marjorie asked to be transferred to a customer service desk job in the Trailways Information Room until her mythical “something more” came along.

Ophelia DeVore, the first top African American fashion model, was credited with “almost single-handedly (opening) the modeling profession to African Americans,” The New York Times. Ms. DeVore in 1946 co-founded the Grace Del Marco Modeling Agency. The celebrity roster, over the years, included: Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Richard Roundtree. In 1948, the renown Ophelia DeVore School of Charm opened its doors.

Marjorie enrolled in Ms. DeVore’s School of Charm where Audrey Smaltz, fashion legend and Ground Crew CEO, taught students how to apply makeup, style hair, walk and sit gracefully and dress for success exhortations. But Marjorie’s mythical “something more” still eluded her.

One day Rhea Smith, a high school classmate, invited Marjorie to join her at the 21 Players Workshop, an acting improvisation group. Marjorie says “There, I discovered that ‘something more!’” Acting classes began at Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre in Harlem. A short time later, Marjorie was accepted into the top class of Robert Hooks’ and Douglas Turner Ward’s prestigious Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) alongside actors Robert Townsend, Dan Martin, and Marianne Alda. After NEC, Marjorie joined Brooklyn’s fabled Alonzo Players, the theatre brainchild of actor-director-playwright-lyricist-composer-visionary Cecil Alonzo. While at the Alonzo Players, Marjorie developed some of her closest friendships, in life, which she continues to maintain.

“Acting was fun and freeing!” Marjorie says, “I could be anyone and anything, at any moment while on stage. I worked as a Trailways information desk attendant by day, and performed as any one of a slew of comedic, dramatic, historic, or futuristic characters by night.” Marjorie’s roles have included: Mabel T. in the weekly Live Soap Opera Beulah Johnson; an AUDELCO Award winning performance as Winnie Mandela in M: the Mandela Saga; a second AUDELCO Award winning performance as Candy Lady in HOODOO LOVE by Katori Hall (Mountaintop). Other theatrical credits span the country and cross the “Pond” (the Atlantic Ocean): The Little Foxes (Lincoln Center); Oak & Ivy and Waiting to be Invited (St. Louis Black Repertory Company); FENCES (Stage West, Delaware Theatre Co., Oregon Shakespeare Festival); The Pen and the Podium (Edinburgh Festival – Edinburgh, Scotland), just to name a few. Marjorie’s film and television credits include working alongside some of the nation’s finest living legends: Chrome Soldiers (Yaphet Kotto); Duplicates (Cicely Tyson), American Gangster (Denzel Washington); Nurse Jackie; As the World Turns; One Life to Live; Law & Order; and Law & Order SVU.

Seasoned New York City theatregoers in 2016 were thrilled about the announcement that Marjorie would be reprising her starring role in DOT, a comedic drama about a family coping with Alzheimer’s disease. (A rising serious calamitous challenge for many families today.) The play highlighted the humorous flipside of dementia, a view that could be a welcomed reprieve for caregivers everywhere. Marjorie was the brightest star in the World Premier of DOT at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2015 HUMANA FESTIVAL.

February 4 through March 24, 2016, DOT’s New York Premier opened at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. Marjorie accepted the starring role, Dot, after Leslie Uggams, the initial star-draw, bowed out due to a scheduling conflict.

In 2006 Marjorie and Colman Domingo (Actor/playwright/director (Walking Dead, The Butler, Lincoln, The Scottsboro Boys, Wild With Happy, Passing Strange) met at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis as they worked together on a production of The People’s Temple, and, a friendship developed. It was there that Colman—known for his unique and outrageous way of finding hilarity in otherwise serious subject matters— mentioned to Marjorie that he was writing a new script which would include a starring role for her. Throughout DOT’s development, Marjorie was cast in the starring role.

Five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman (Crazy For You, Show Boat, Contact, The Producers) was brought in to direct DOT’s New York City production. It was the latest collaboration between Domingo and Stroman since The Scottsboro Boys, their controversial groundbreaker that garnered 12 Tony Award nominations.

DOT closed March 24th, but rave reviews have other roles rolling in for “something more” Marjorie Johnson! So, look out for Marjorie Johnson’s future stage, TV, or film performances… maybe even the Broadway debut of DOT! (Stranger things have happened.)

 

 

Follow Perri Gaffney:

Perri Gaffney adapted her novel, The Resurrection of Alice (J. California Cooper “I love this book!”), into an award winning play. She co-authored two texts with Mitch Weiss; Managing Artists in Pop Music and The Business of Broadway, has articles in Black Masks, African Eye, and The Charlotte Observer, and several poetry commissions.

14 Responses

  1. MARJORIE JOHNSON
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    I LOOOVE reading ROUTES Magazine. It’s very interesting, insightful and informative. All of the articles are so well written and very diverse. I’m so happy to be a part of the ROUTES family. Thanks for keeping the African American culture alive.

  2. Dominic Marcus
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    Dominic Marcus
    I’m so glad I read Routes Magazine; It’s so informative about
    What’s happening in the African American Community!!!
    I love that story about one of my favorite actresses,
    Marjorie Johnson!!!!????????????
    She’s just so inspiring and transformational to watch!!! She brings out the best in me! And makes me remember to be a human being!!! Thanks Mr.Bunn/ and Ms Gaffney for the great Article!!????

  3. Alex Simmons
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    Perri G’s article sings the truth about a remarkable and talented individual. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Marjorie for almost 30 years, and her performance on stage, in every role I’ve seen her tackle, has been quality and heart personified. It’s time for even brighter lights to shine on her.

  4. Kim Brockington
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    Love this beautiful article written by the very gifted Perri Gaffney I’ve read her books and seen her act as well she always blows me away with her remarkable skills and this article about the very gifted, talented, fierce, and phenomenal Marjorie Johnson made my heart sing! I have seen Ms.Johnson grace the stage many times and it’s always magical and special. Her TV and film presence is always strong and exciting as well. I must say her performance in “Dot” was STELLAR! I cried I laughed I wanted to rewind and see it again so powerful and heartwarming. This actress deserves more praise and articles like this she is the real deal! Bravo Marjorie Johnson continue being the star you were born to be and are! And thank you to one of my favorite magazine Routes! Especially for Perri Gaffney she is a treasure to read I always love her writing!

  5. Messeret Stroman
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    I’m thrilled that Ms Marjorie Johnson found her ‘something more’ so that she could share it with us. She’s a very gifted talent and it was so wonderfully captured in this article by Ms Perri Gaffney. Kudos to them both and ROUTES for giving them room to shine.

  6. Marjorie Bryant
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    I feel fortunate to have read the article about Marjorie Johnson written by the gifted Perri Gaffney. Marjorie Johnson’ s performances captures her audiences in a way that brings them back to see her again. I can barely wait to see her next performance. If you haven’t seen her work, please give yourself a treat. I thank Routes for this fantastic article.

  7. Carmen Mathis
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    Marjorie Johnson has always been a Star…it just took 40 years for some to discover it. I’ve known Marjorie and her work for over 30 years…and knew it since day one!! Congratulations, Perri for this wonderful article,, and of course, Ms. Marjorie for just being Marjorie!!

  8. Thomas Southern
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    Thomas Southern

    What a gladsome and engaging read on the journey of Marjorie Johnson. I personally know Marjorie as a good friend and fellow thespian. She is caring, highly skilled, humble and creative. She has a deep respect for acting and also for those around her. I am thrilled you put her in the spotlight. She deserves this special attention. Thank you ROUTES Magazine and to you Perri Gaffney. – This story is about Love and Marjorie’s Dream. Beautiful!

  9. David Pendleton
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    In addition, Marjorie worked with David Pendleton’s The Performers Seminar Workshop where she also was awarded an AUDELCO for her performance in Richard Wesley’s THE SIRENS performed by The PSW Players. I have known Marjorie over the years as devoted to her art and integrity and dedicated to The Process. Her recognition is well deserved – and about time!
    David Pendleton

  10. Midge Purcell
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    Thank you Perri for capturing my sister Marjorie Johnson’s successful journey on the stage and screen with such vibrancy. The article conveys both her personal courage, vision and willingness to embrance new challenges, along with the historical barriers of racism and discrmination she had to overcome. Her humour and good grace are well illustrated. She has spent a lifetime honing and perfecting her craft. She has always been gracious when others who were less talented found success and financial gain. The recogntion she has enjoyed with Dot is long overdue. I hope it is a gateway to greater opportunity and reward.

  11. M. Drue Williams
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    Beautiful to know the back story of our talented Majorie Johnson! And she has a beautiful spirit to match!

  12. Del Hunter-White
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    My good friend Marjorie Johnson, introduced me to ROUTES magazine. Thank you girl! Great informative articles that keep me in loop with my people. I live in LA, but I’m hoping for a broadway production of DOT. I will be on the next plane when that happens.

  13. Benja Kay Thomas
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    Great article Perri you are a true treasure as well as Marjorie (Starjorie) Johnson. She has ALWAYS been phenomenal. I am so glad more people are getting a chance to witness her brilliance. She is definitely a bright star and a beautiful person.

  14. Stephanie
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    OMG! I knew that I knew Marjorie from almost 40 years ago, wracking my brain trying to pin down from where. I distinctly remember her sweetness, and appearance of innocence only to find that she was funny and bold. Did we attend junior high together? Or NYU School of the Arts? After googling her name to solve the mystery I found this article. Voila! Mystery solved! It was the acting workshop at NBT! Whew! Now I can rest my brain.

    Congrats lady! She is so deserving. I will be cheering her on at the AUDELCO Awards.

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