Broadway Bound

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

Zonya Love Gives Us Insight On the World of Theater Through Her Eyes

As a Carolina country girl, I grew up singing in a hand clapping, foot stomping church. I stumbled into the theatre world toward the end of my high school career but did not consider it as a potential profession. Unforeseeable circumstances influenced me to major in theater while attending North Carolina A&T State University. After receiving my B.F.A. I did a little acting here and there for a year and then decided to pursue a graduate degree. Six months after receiving my M.F.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I miraculously landed the role of Celie in THE COLOR PURPLE on Broadway (produced by Oprah Winfrey), replacing Fantasia Barrino. After closing the Original Broadway Production of the Color Purple I traveled the continent in the First National Tour of the Tony Award-winning musical AVENUE Q. I gave my passport a good workout performing on stages in Lyon, Liverpool, Scotland, St. Martin, and Toronto. A couple of my favorite highlights include singing at the famed Carnegie Hall, and becoming a member of the infamous, soul stirring, Grammy nominated, Tony Award Winning Broadway Inspirational Voices (BIV). Joining BIV has led to other highlights-recording with the band The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, performing in Mariah Carey's 2014 Christmas Spectacular, and providing background vocals for TV shows AMERICA'S GOT TALENT, SMASH, and THE DAVID LETTERMAN SHOW. If you listen really closely you just might hear my voice on BIV's second album, "Great Joy II". Volunteering for several organizations including The Ronald McDonald House, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Covenant House, and Sing For Hope remain some of the best moments of my career. What’s next? Only time will tell.

DS: Some people, like myself thought I was going to be a fly girl on In Living Color and then a dancer for Janet Jackson, before I was introduced to theater. What did you think you were going to be? How were you introduced to theatre, and did you fall in love with it right away?

ZL: When I was young I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I don’t remember if there was any particular reason other than having limited ideas of what I could be, wanting to be like Claire Huxtable, and admiring the husband of my older brother’s teacher who was a lawyer. As I got older and more involved with my church choir, inspired by a guest vocalist who did a workshop on praise and worship, I thought maybe I could do something that I loved, (sing) be a vocal coach. I had no plans to be in the spotlight. So when I went to summer orientation at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (AGGIE PRIDE!!!) I fully intended to major in music.

Other than church plays, Easter Sunday, and an occasional school function I wasn’t really exposed to theater. One day my older sister, one of our friends and I decided to audition for this after school program on a whim called Communimedia. The program consisted of students from various High Schools in the Durham Public School System. We would write songs and a script centered around sex, violence, drugs, and bullying and perform them for local junior high schools. I didn’t realize at the time but a seed was planted. When I got to NCA&T for summer orientation and began registration for music classes I was asked what my level of sight-reading was. I had no idea what that meant. After asking a series of questions I made the decision to major in theater for a year. I would learn how to come out of my shyness in my theater classes while learning to sight-read on the side. That was the plan. Whelp, you know what they say, “make plans, God laughs." I was cast in the first and second show of the first semester and the rest is history.

DS: It takes a lot of discipline to be an actor/actress. Do you have a daily regimen to keep you up on your game?

ZL: My daily regimen varies depending on where I am and if I am on contract. Whether I am working or not, I’m mostly disciplined when it comes to self-care. When I’m not under the cloud, I start my morning with bible study, one or two devotions on a certain topic, prayer and meditation. I get an hour of physical activity. I usually have some project that I am working on so I devote time to learning lines or music. Other than that I leave my schedule free and open to go with the flow. I do believe I could be more disciplined though.

Photo:Os Galindo Courtesy of Theatre Under The StarsShow: Dreamgirls

DS: What I love most about theater is that it’s live. You must give the audience the illusion of the first time. How do you maintain that illusion singing live night after night?

ZL: In regard to singing, it is vital for me to practice vocal health. I am naturally a loud person but I have to be mindful when I am doing a show that requires a lot of singing. I try (haha) to minimize my loud speaking. I drink LOTS of water. I avoid spaces that require me to speak over noise. I drink LOTS of water. I warm up my voice on a daily basis. Did I mention that I drink LOTS of water? When it comes to acting there is something about hitting the stage that allows me to leave Zonya in the dressing room. Zonya might be tired. Zonya knows the end of the play. However, the character that Zonya is playing does not. I also carry my belief in living moment to moment onto stage.

DS: Who/what has been your inspiration behind wanting to be an actor?

ZL: I’m about to be ONE HUNNIT so stop reading now if you don’t want my whole truth; This question always gets me because I don’t know if I WANT to be an actor. There is so much that goes into being an actor that I don’t necessarily like. I love the idea of creating but not fond of what I create being judged by people who may or may not get it. I don’t like the instability that comes with being a performer. I don’t like rejection. I don’t always like the commitment and discipline it takes to stay current and relevant. I could go on and on. The truth of the matter is, I don’t want, I NEED to be an actor/performer. Creating and performing is my purpose in life. I don’t see myself doing anything else. So, I guess the answer is the need to perform is my inspiration.

DS: What would be your advice to a young girl wanting to be on Broadway?

ZL: I would say treat wherever you currently are as if it is your own personal Broadway stage. Approach everything you do with the same commitment, dedication, fervor, and respect were you performing on Broadway. It’s good practice. Invest in you and your craft by training in various areas of performance. Never stop learning. Hone your skills in singing, dancing, acting, improv.

Take care of your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Be persistent. Don’t let rejection be a deterrent, let it be a motivator. Avoid comparing your journey to others. Be kind to everyone. Have integrity. Surround yourself with friends and family who support. Stay away from negativity. If it doesn’t add value to your life, get rid of it. Find joy during the process and slow seasons. When auditioning, have fun. Be you. You are better at being you than anyone else. Bring you into the room. Be in control of the things you can control and for everything else, let go. See the value in all the steps that lead you to Broadway. There is a lesson in everything. It may seem like an impossible dream, performing on Broadway is indeed possible. Speak it. Write it. Envision it. Believe it.

DS: Do you have a favorite play: Do you have a favorite that you have performed?

ZL: I would have to say just about anything written by Lynn Nottage. Intimate Apparel and Ruined are tied for first place. I enjoy all of her work. I enjoy how she writes women characters. They are complex yet simple.

My favorite role to have portrayed would be Celie in the musical The Color Purple. I grew up reading the novel. I enjoyed playing this role so much for various reasons. One reason it is my favorite, is due to it being such a cathartic experience. Each night I would walk out on stage (as Celie) full of self-doubt, feelings of inferiority, empty and hopeless and walk off the stage self assured, self confident, full and hopeful. The role created in me a desire to improve the parts of myself that were insecure, ignored, and needed to be healed. I couldn’t ask for a better role to debut on Broadway.

Zonya Johson as Celie in Broadway's The Color Purple

Chaka Khan, Patti La'Belle and Zonya Johnson: The Color Purple

DS: In The New York Times, Lena Waithe prompted an important question: “Why aren’t black stars funding films by black auteurs.” You had a similar question concerning theater. Why do you think black stars aren’t funding and producing black theater?

ZL: I believe that there are some but not enough. My theory is that other than church plays many of us (generally speaking) are not exposed to the theater culture when we are young. So, we don’t have a connection to it. For some people, their only exposure to the arts is through school. So what happens to those growing up in schools where there are no art programs? How does a child discover that they have an interest in writing, directing, acting, and/or poetry?

Let’s say despite the lack of exposure to theater culture, some people end up in the entertainment industry. Although they are now a part of the entertainment industry they may not have any allegiance to the theater world specifically. Theater may not be on their radar therefore, they may not see the need to invest.

DS: It is always great to see black and brown people on stage, especially when they are telling our stories. What do you think it would take to see more of our stories and us on Broadway?

ZL: We need to own more theaters. We need to be a part of the creative team. We need to be behind the table. We need to be producing. We need to be in casting. We need to continue to challenge people’s ideas and perceptions of what blackness is and what it ain’t. We need white people to create with us as opposed to for us. We need to tell our stories.

We are not a monolith and deserve to tell stories that reflect that. We may also need to show Broadway that we have other outlets and arenas to tell our stories. Although we appreciate and understand what it means to perform on a Broadway stage, it doesn’t have to be the end all be all. We can sell out other theaters. We can appeal to audiences in other cities.

Photo:Os Galindo Courtesy of Theatre Under The StarsShow: Dreamgirls

DS: What would you like to see in the future of theater as it pertains to black representation?

ZL: I would like to see my friends who are opera singers perform in big opera houses, in shows that aren’t written specifically for black people. I would like the ‘token’ phenomenon to be obsolete. I would like us to get the role because we were good, not because we were black and a quota needs to be met. I would like to see more positions for directors, choreographers, music directors, orchestral members, playwrights, artistic and executive directors, stage managers, company mangers, leading ladies and leading men filled with black people as well as other people of color. I would like the theater to reflect the world in which we live. I would like us to be able to “just be” on stage.

DS: Are you in anything now and/or anything coming up?

ZL: I just finished a show at Arena Stage in DC. I am currently in between acting gigs with a few singing situations here and there. Next up for me, I will be in Sacramento, California performing in Broadway Sacramento’s production of The Wiz. I’m playing Evilene.

How can people keep up with you?

ZL: People can follow me on IG and Twitter @lovezonya. My website is currently under construction but should be finished in September.