Kristy Johnson found out the hard way that she could not overpower or subdue her creative side.
The Chicago native and lone female cast member in South Coast Repertory's production of the August Wilson play "Jitney," which opens on Friday night, gave up a promising legal career to start over again as an actor.
"I discovered that what I said I wanted for my life was not what I wanted at all," she said in an interview.
After a straight trajectory through Harvard University, the University of Chicago Law School and a great position at a top Chicago law firm, Johnson decided to scrap a career in the courts to pursue one on the stage.
"I realized very quickly that I didn't enjoy what I was doing," she said. "And it's not because it was hard work. I love working hard. I've always worked hard. But for the first time in my life, it was a challenge for me. I really needed to step back and see what would be fulfilling for my life. I discovered it would be a career in the arts."
With the brand of passion and determination that she brings to life in her "Jitney" character Rena, Johnson shifted course, becoming a full-time actress in 2008. Two years later, she moved to Los Angeles and began picking up work in theater, television and film.
This four-week run of "Jitney" will be Johnson's debut at SCR. She's excited to see how her character will grow through the production of this ensemble drama, portraying the lives of men hustling to make a living as jitneys (unofficial, unlicensed taxi cab drivers) in the Pittsburgh Hill District of the 1970s.
According to "Jitney" director Ron O.J. Parson, Johnson couldn't be better suited for the role of Rena, a determined young mother balancing the priorities of raising her son and loving her good-intentioned, irresponsible Vietnam War veteran husband, Youngblood (played by Larry Bates).
Johnson relates her role to the example set by her own mother, Rosetta Johnson, who raised her daughter as a single mother in Chicago.
"Rena is extremely prepared, in the case that her husband cannot be the man she needs him to be, to leave," Johnson said of her character. "My mother was the same way. She did what she had to do to give me every opportunity I could possibly have. She taught me I could do anything. Rena's determined to set that same example for her son. It's a powerful place to draw inspiration from."
Johnson will perform alongside a cast of eight all-star actors, many of whom, like the acclaimed Charlie Robinson, have previously appeared in Wilson's plays or knew the late playwright personally in his heyday.
Set in early autumn of 1977, at a run-down gypsy cab station in The Hill, "Jitney" brings us to the doorstep of nine interwoven lives in a blue-collar community. We hear stories from eight gypsy cab drivers and Rena (Johnson's character) each connected by threads of friendship, gossip, regret, grief, hope and love.
The original 1979 version of "Jitney," one of Wilson's first plays, went on to become part of a 10-play series he titled "Pittsburgh Cycle," depicting the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century. The series received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
Though she appears only in three scenes of this two-act play, Johnson's role is pivotal in balancing the bawdy insult trading and shoptalk of the cab drivers with, well, a woman's touch.
"It's a play about these particular individuals under very specific circumstances, but the themes are universal," Johnson said. "These are just people trying to make it, make the best life they can under trying circumstances."
The cab station is the headquarters for a series of everyday exchanges delivered with far-from-ordinary language. Fights break out, a son faces his father after a 20-year prison term, loved ones struggle and forgive.
As with all of Wilson's plays, the art of "Jitney" isn't in the plot summary; it moves along the staff lines, in the musicality of the dialogue, in the trumpeted delivery of each character's song.
As director Parsons (who has worked on 18 other Wilson productions) said, "It's always a pleasure to bring August to life. He's always there. He was a poet above all else and you can hear the rhythms and lyrical nature, even in the dialect. It's what makes this a love story; people have a lot to draw from, and they get out of it what they can align to in the story. It's well worth the cab fare to see for yourself."
If You Go
What: "Jitney," written by August Wilson and directed by Ron O.J. Parson
Where: Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Opening night is Friday, but it's sold out.
Regular Performances: Saturday to June 10. Check website for showtimes.
Cost: $29 to $68.