Playing Lady Thiang in the Harbor Lights’ Production of The King and I is a dream come true for Christine Toy Johnson
For Christine Toy Johnson, playing Lady Thiang opposite Mel Sagrado Maghuyop as The King and Tamara Jenkins as Anna, in the Harbor Lights Theater Company’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, is a dream come true.
“I’ve been so lucky to have had a chance to play so many of my dream roles: “Maria” in West Side Story, “Julie” in Carousel, “Cunegonde” in Candide, “Amalia” in She Loves Me — and now, to finally get to play “Lady Thiang” after chasing her for so many years really feels like a dream come true,” said Johnson, an award-winning actor, playwright, filmmaker and advocate for inclusion in the arts. “I’m so glad it’s here and now, with this company, at this time.”
As a performer, she has been featured extensively on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theatres across the country, in film, television, and concerts worldwide. Highlights include the New York revivals of The Music Man, Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures, and Falsettoland, the national tours of Cats,Flower Drum Song and Bombay Dreams, and leading roles at some of the most well-respected theatres across the country including the Huntington Theatre Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Indiana Rep, Missouri Rep, Paper Mill Playhouse, Denver Center Theatre Company, Minnesota Opera, California Musical Theatre, the Ogunquit Playhouse, the Weston Playhouse and the Hangar Theatre. Nearly 100 television appearances include two years as “Lisa West” on “One Life To Live,” “Ugly Betty,” “The Big C, “Fringe,” “Royal Pains,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Nunsense,” “Nunsense 2” and many episodes of various Law and Orders.” Recent guest starring spots on TV include “30 ROCK” in an episode called “Plan B”, and as Vanessa Williams’ friend “Julie” in “666 Park Ave.”
Fellow Broadway veteran and long-time “Sesame Street” cast member Alan Muraoka, who appeared in the 1996 revival of the show on Broadway, is at the helm of the Harbor Lights Theater Company’s production of The King and I, with Andrew Sakaguchi expertly re-constructing Jerome Robbins’ legendary choreography.
Harbor Lights’ The King and I, originally scheduled to open on November 2nd prior to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, will now open on November 8th at 8pm, with a limited run through November 18th at the Music Hall at Historic Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Gardens, 1000 Richmond Terrace on Staten Island.
The Harbor Lights’ production includes OBIE Award winner and Staten Island resident Ron Domingo (The Romance of Magno Rubio) as The Kralahome and his daughter Autumn as Princess Ying Yawolak, Hansel Tan as Lun Tha, YoonJeong Seong as Tuptim, Jon Viktor Corpuz as Prince Chulalongkorn (Godspell cast of 2032), John Anthony as Captain Orton, Isis Noel as Louis Leonowens, Nobutaka Mochimaru as Simon of Legree, Viet Vo as The Interpreter, Masami Ishibashi as Uncle Thomas, Remina Nishida as Little Eva, Arisa Odaka as Angel/George, Yuki Kittaka as Topsy and Michiko Takemasa as Eliza. The cast also features Kaitlyn Cantoni, Gemma Dalfo-Zay, Jonathan G Galvez, Kavanagh Honor, Hyemi Kim, Sophie Kim, Tamara Lechner, Tomas Matos, Melanie Molina, Lily Randall, Olivia Roldan, Darren Shin. Leo Corpus, Maxe Corpus, VJ Scarpaci, William Corwin, Viyath Navinna, Julianna Katz, Robin Rodolfo, Alexandria Rose Quinones and Suharya Bandara play the royal children.
The King and I was inspired by the memoirs of Anna Harriet Leonowens, the real author and teacher. Anna was hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his 67 children at his royal palace in Bangkok. She stayed for several years, leaving Bangkok during the 1860’s and settling in Staten Island. She lived on Tompkins Place for approximately three years. While on Staten Island she ran a private school for girls in West Brighton. Following that she settled in Canada and where she lived until her death in 1914.
Johnson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Certificate of Screenwriting Program at NYU. An anthology of her written work was included in the Library of Congress Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection in 2010.
She was the Executive Producer and Co-Director with her husband, filmmaker Bruce Johnson, ofTranscending –The Wat Misaka Story, the inspiring award-winning documentary feature film about Japanese American basketball star Wat Misaka, the first person of color to be drafted into what is now the NBA by the 1947 New York Knicks.
We chatted on the ride back to Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry after a rehearsal of The King and I; below are excerpts from our talk, and a subsequent Q & A via email.
Lia: Have you ever done the King and I?
Christine: I have done 2 other productions of The King and I; the first time when I was 11, as a princess, and the second, when I was in college, as a dancing tree. This is my first time playing “Lady Thiang”.
Lia: What makes this production with the Harbor Lights Theater Company so special?
Christine: The company is so lovely, loving, generous and talented. The way people have pulled together in support of our Staten Island family in light of Hurricane Sandy is reflected both on stage and off.
Lia: You have been a long time advocate for inclusion in the arts, and are a founding steering committee member for AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition); a member of the elected leadership of Actors’ Equity Association since 1992, serving as co-chair of the union’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee; and are on the executive board of the Tony-honored Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. Please share your thoughts.
Christine: I’m very proud of the work that AAPAC is doing. We started as a group of 10-12 Asian American actors/writers/directors who got together to explore why Asian Americans were being underrepresented in the NYC theatre scene. A year later, we’re fostering meaningful conversations with other industry leaders about inclusion, getting Asian Americans into the diversity dialogue, forging a creative response to exclusion. We’re a group of working actors who are working at cracking open preconceived notions of who Asian American performers are — and how many of us exist(!), and getting people to understand why we deserve to be part of the American landscape that’s portrayed in the theatre.
Lia: In 2010, you were honored by the JACL (the nation’s largest and oldest Asian American civil rights organization) for “exemplary leadership and dedication”, and this year by the Asian American Arts Alliance with The Wai Look Award for Outstanding Service in the Arts. What does receiving the Wai Look Award mean to you?
Christine: Of course you never do advocacy work for the recognition — you do it because you believe in making a change so strongly that you must do whatever you can do to make it happen — but to be acknowledged by a group of advocates and artists whose work is making such an impact on both the Asian American community and the Arts community, is such an honor. And Wai Look, though I never knew her, has left such a beautiful legacy of the power of volunteerism in service to the arts. I’m humbled and inspired by her.
Lia: You recently became a member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. What are you currently developing?
Christine: In the first year of the workshop, we are paired with other writers there (I am a lyricist, so I’m being paired with composers) to do various assignments — for example: songs that are a “sad hello”, or a “happy good bye”. Outside of the workshop, I’m writing book and lyrics to an original new musical called BARCELONA with my dear friend, the brilliant composer/lyricist Jason Ma.
Lia: What do you have in the works?
I’m also starting a new initiative as a response to people questioning (even recently) whether or not there are any Asian American actors out there to perform some of these roles we’ve been making noise about. It’s called The Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project.
An ongoing initiative, The Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project will highlight works created and sung by Asian American musical theatre artists as a creative response to the misperception that opportunities for Asian American artists are low because we don’t exist. In fact, we never left.
Together with a group of Asian American singers, we will highlight works created and sung by Asian American artists, to not only nurture our own community, but to create opportunities for increased visibility and have a hand at telling our own stories, with authenticity.
I’m hoping to launch this project before the end of the year, with the first performance happening sometime this winter.
For more information on Christine Toy Johnson, please visitwww.christinetoyjohnson.com.
The King and I performance schedule is November 8th at 8pm, 9th at 8pm, 10th at 2pm and 8pm, 11th at 2pm, 15th at 8pm, 16th at 8pm, 17th at 2pm and 8pm and 18th at 2pm. Tickets for The King and I are $30.00 for adults, $25 for students w/valid ID, children ages 3 and 17 and Senior (60+). Recommended age: 5 and up.
For more information about The Harbor Lights Theater Company and to purchase tickets to the show, visit the website atwww.theharborlightstheatercompany.org. Box office phone: 866-811-4111.
Directions from NYC:
If you are taking public transportation the following trains will get you to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal:
R: Whitehall Street, 1: South Ferry, 4/5: Bowling Green, J/Z: Broad Street
Bus Directions from Staten Island Ferry terminal:
Go to Gate A to the S40 bus. Tell the bus you are going to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. Get off at the first Snug Harbor Exit which will lead you to the middle of the site. Bear left and follow the paths to the Music Hall or Veterans Memorial Hall. Click here for a map and detailed directions.
About Harbor Lights Theater Company:
Since founding HLTC in 2010, Broadway veterans and Harbor Lights Founding Artistic Directors Tamara Jenkins and Jay Montgomery, and Founding Producer Beth Gittleman, have begun putting their substantial contacts and relationships to work building a bridge from Broadway to Staten Island, bringing the nation’s best to work with their community’s finest. In only two seasons of producing plays and musicals, Harbor Lights has presented over 50 Broadway professionals, including TONY, Grammy, Oscar, Emmy, Drama Desk, and Obie Award winning and nominated artists on its stages.