CAITLIN JOHNSON, a senior in Troupe 8632, is one of a small number of Black females in her theatre department. Because she saw few people of color onstage and even fewer diverse characters to play, Johnson often wondered where she fit in. “Not seeing proper representation creates the idea of doubt in yourself and your abilities,” she said. Still, Johnson has pursued every onstage opportunity available, even the roles she felt were out of reach.

Caitlin Johnson as a Mississippi State Thespian apprentice at the Mississippi Thespian Convention. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Johnson.

During her sophomore year at Jackson Academy, Johnson decided to overcome doubt when she auditioned to play the matchmaker Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof, a character traditionally cast as a white female. After being cast as Yenta, Johnson realized, “Not only did this opportunity show me that theatrical characters can be any race they want, but I also was able to learn about the culture and deep heritage of the Jewish community.” She believes this is a valuable lesson many theatre students have not grasped. Now Johnson wants to ensure every Thespian knows they can play any character they want, despite the role’s original race or gender.

In June, the Mississippian was awarded a Broadway Licensing Send A Leader Diversity Grant, established by the International Thespian Officers to increase opportunities in diversity-based leadership, service, and social justice activities for students at the Thespian troupe, chapter, and national level. The grant permitted Johnson to attend the 2020 Virtual International Thespian Festival, where she spent her first day attending Through the Leaderships Lens, an ITO-led student leadership workshop.

Through the workshop, Johnson identified her leadership style, developed skills as a collaborative team member, and discovered best practices for maximizing arts advocacy in schools. The workshop has reinforced Johnson’s desire to increase representation in school theatre.

Caitlin Johnson as Yenta in Jackson Academy’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Caitlin Johnson as Yenta in Jackson Academy’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Johnson.

What experience made you aware you were a leader?
For me, the moment I realized I was a leader was when I worked as an apprentice to the State Thespian Officers at my local Thespian convention. Being able to help with the convention was one of my highs this year.

What inspired you to participate in the leadership program?
One of the reasons I attended the program was to learn and engage with other Thespians from around the world. Receiving the Broadway Licensing Send a Leader Diversity Grant gave me the opportunity to attend.

What were your three favorite moments at the virtual student leadership program?
My top three moments would be listening to the International Thespian Officer candidates speak, Alton Fitzgerald White sharing his journey to Broadway, and the activities the International Thespian Officers prepared for us. Hearing what the future of the Thespian Society could look like made me hopeful and excited for next year.

Caitlin Johnson rehearsing a scene as Yenta for the Jackson Academy production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Caitlin Johnson rehearsing a scene as Yenta for the Jackson Academy production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Johnson.

What Black female actresses have inspired you?
Some of my favorite actresses are Renée Elise Goldsberry, Cynthia Erivo, Audra McDonald, and Hailey Kilgore. Every single one of these women has inspired me so very much in so many ways. For instance, when Hailey Kilgore was given the part of Ti Moune in Once on This Island at the age of 18, even though she is a few years older than me, I saw myself. I saw a girl who looked like me, doing what I want to do. Her getting that role gave me hope for my future in theatre.

What advice would you give other Black Thespians about pursuing their theatre dreams?
Demand to have a seat at the table, and do not get tired of working to help other Thespians get their seat. There will be people saying you do not need to be there, but keep pushing! There will be times when you must build your table and fill it with like-minded people, people who want to fuel and encourage others’ dreams. Do not be afraid to fight for what’s right. Not only for you but for every person who does not see themselves or their community represented.

Caitlin Johnson (top middle) with the cast and crew of 937.
Caitlin Johnson (top middle) with the cast and crew of 937. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Johnson.
  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Five Questions with Sara Gushue

    Five Questions with Sara Gushue

    Thespian encourages leaders to enter others’ worlds

    Aug 05, 2020

    Five Questions with <br/>Cameron Holder

    Five Questions with
    Cameron Holder

    Thespian advocates for more leaders of color

    Jul 29, 2020

    Five Questions with <br/>Jeyna Lynn Gonzales

    Five Questions with
    Jeyna Lynn Gonzales

    2020-21 ITO on student leadership

    Jul 20, 2020