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From the time Brittney Johnson was at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she knew she wanted to be in Wicked. She just needed an audition.
“I graduated college and got my agent, and they were like, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Wicked,'” the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But then I wasn’t able to get an audition — they never called me in.”
So Johnson held on to the dream while pursuing acting elsewhere, leading to her first Broadway job in 2014 as a swing and replacement for Motown the Musical. She covered a whopping nine ensemble roles, including the show’s lead, Diana Ross.
“It changed my whole outlook,” the actress says of her time as a swing on Motown. “I learned so much about my capabilities as a performer and, just as a human being, what I’m able to internalize and execute.”
Johnson would go on to perform in Broadway productions of Les Misérables (where she became the first Black woman to play both Eponine and Fantine), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Sunset Boulevard. But 2018 would mark the magical moment she’d be swept to Oz. In her very first audition for Wicked, she got cast and became the understudy for Glinda.
Adapted from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the show is an origins spin on how the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North came to be. It marks Johnson’s longest time with any single Broadway production.
“There’s something so special about that building, about the people that work at Wicked,” Johnson explains about why she’s remained with the show. “About their kind of reverence for theater as an art form, for the ability to make a living doing theater.”
She also stays because of moments like now — her Feb. 14 debut as the first Black Good Witch of the North on Broadway. Wicked has a history of casting actors of color in principal roles, an amalgamation of screen stars, music artists, and Tony nominees and winners. That includes Taye Diggs and Justin Guarini as Fiyero, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Madame Morrible, Ben Vereen as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Arielle Jacobs as Nessarose, Robin de Jesús as Boq, and Saycon Sengbloh and Lindsay Mendez as Elphaba.
But Johnson is the very first full-time Glinda played by a woman of color, and it’s a part she’s already made history with. In 2019, she stepped up as the understudy and descended from Glinda’s bubble, marking the first time an actor of color had ever played Glinda in the show’s nearly two-decade history.
“The impact that I’ve been able to make has certainly kept me there,” she says. “My desire to keep moving up in the ranks and eventually take over this role has also kept me here.”
That persistence led to what is sure to be new takeaways on a story, at least metaphorically, about race.
Elphaba, dubbed a “wicked witch” by the town of Oz and the Wizard, sings to the experience of being othered and rejected based on ignorant assumptions and negative stereotypes. But Glinda — a foil-turned-friend to Elphaba until their love for the same man and varying allegiances to the Wizard pit them against one another — comes from a place of popularity and privilege.
Historically played as a bubbly, white blonde (Kristin Chenoweth originated the role on Broadway), Johnson says the character now presents a new opportunity for how audiences will see her beyond being the kind of “soft” and “gentle” princess stereotype “pushed on women for decades.”
“I am also very strong. I like to work out and lift. I prioritize strength,” she says. “I want to be an inspiration that you can be different in how you look and how you act, and how you present yourself to the world.”
In playing a Glinda of color, the Wicked actress also hopes it will change audiences’ willingness to connect with her character, who, at times, betrays her namesake. “I don’t think people want to see themselves in Glinda often. They want to see themselves as the underdog that overcomes,” she says. “Sometimes, you’re the underdog even when everybody thinks that you’re Glinda.”
The experience of being both looked at and to is something Johnson became familiar with while attending predominantly white schools and working in primarily white artistic environments where she felt a duty to represent Black people.
Johnson, firmly, says that she, nor anyone else, should have to feel this, but that it was something she internalized at a young age in hopes that whatever good impression she left might stop others from jumping to “the stereotypes that we’re so often pushed into in the entertainment world.”
Part of that process was learning to code-switch, which became so engrained she stopped recognizing it. It helped her “coexist and try to move up to just have a little access,” she stresses, because without that “you can’t change minds.”
“Especially at the beginning of my career, it was like, ‘I’m only going to present this version of me because this is the version of me that people can palette and that I see people responding to,’ though I still heard so many no’s,” Johnson said, letting out an exasperated laugh. “Now I feel like, ‘All right, let me take off my coat and get comfortable,’ because now that I’m no longer making a first impression, that I’m not existing as a stereotype but a full person, we can start having some of these conversations.”
Becoming Glinda, a lead role in Broadway’s second-highest-grossing musical of all time, has empowered Johnson to shape more of her experience on the show, down to daily interactions where casual or subconscious racism can slip through.
“I want to always be honest and authentic, and genuine and who I am,” she says of how the show’s themes now resonate with her real-world experience. “So part of that moving forward is saying: ‘This isn’t a way that you can speak to people. This isn’t appropriate. That actually wasn’t a funny joke. Here’s why.'”
For a show about remaining authentic to who you are and dismantling misconceptions about people based on their looks, Johnson has also worked with the Wicked team to modify elements of Glinda’s appearance to be better-suited to the woman playing her, as well as “lay the carpet for people that will come after you.” The wig journey especially, Johnson says, was emotional and a bit of a rollercoaster, but resulted in something that makes her “feel like Beyoncé every time I put these things on.”
“There’s a specific way that as a Black person you learn to present and handle yourself, because there’s always people, whether they want to admit it, who are seeing you through some kind of filter or some kind of preconceived stereotypes,” she says. “So it was finding the balance between who the character is and, ‘This would look ridiculous, so I cannot present myself this way as a self-respecting human being and especially as a Black woman.'”
These kinds of changes are essential for Johnson. Both in terms of who she is when she takes the Gershwin stage and when she steps off of it, as someone who doesn’t want to be “a caricature of who I am or just be the bubbly ‘Sunny Britney,'” a nickname the actress has had since she was a kid.
“People are looking, and I don’t necessarily think that they are looking hoping that I fail, but they are looking anytime that you’re the first or the only, to get a blueprint of what might this look like in the future,” Johnson says. “I can inspire people a lot more as a full human who has experienced loss and hurt and offense, and has overcome it and is still able to be sunny.”
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