TONI ANN JOHNSON won the 1998 Humanitas Prize for her screenplay “Ruby Bridges,” the Disney/ABC movie and true story of the young girl who integrated the New Orleans Public School system. She was honored with a Christopher Award for her script as well. In 2004 Johnson won a second Humanitas prize for her screenplay “Crown Heights,” (Showtime) also a true story. The film examined the relationship between a Hasidic Jewish teen and an African-American teen who came together to form a hip hop group in the wake of the 1991 Crown Heights Riots. Johnson wrote the Lifetime movie “The Courage to Love,” starring Vanessa L. Williams, based on the life of Henriette Delille, a free woman of color in mid-19th Century New Orleans, who became one of the first nuns of African descent. She also wrote the Fox Television pilot “Save The Last Dance,” based on the hit feature film, on which she was a participating writer. Johnson also co-wrote the 2008 dance movie hit “Step Up 2: The Streets.”
Johnson’s stage play “Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public,” was produced by the Fountainhead Theater Company in Los Angeles where she played the lead role of Luna. The play subsequently received a main-stage production by The New York Stage and Film Company at Vassar College and starred Nicole Ari Parker, David Warshofsky and Eddie Cahill. She co-wrote the play, “Here In My Father’s House” along with Leslie Lee, Ellen Cheghorne, Cheryl Lane, Zelda Patterson and Jewel Brimage. It was directed by Douglass Turner Ward, produced Off Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company and starred, James Pickens Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson. Johnson, along with the other participating women writers, also appeared in the production.
In 2013 Johnson began publishing short stories based on her experience as a person of color, growing up in Monroe, New York, which at the time was a conservative town, with few people of color. The stories examine race and class and have appeared in The Emerson Review, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Arlijo Journal, Red Fez, Soundings Review, Hunger Mountain, the Reading Out Loud podcast and Xavier Review. A debut novel, Remedy For a Broken Angel, about the relationship between a mother and daughter in a family of jazz musicians was published by Nortia Press in June of 2014. Johnson was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work — Debut Author. She won an 2015 International Latino Book Award for Most Inspirational Fiction and a 2015 Beverly Hills Book Award for Multicultural Fiction. She was a finalist for IndieFab’s Book of the Year, and she received an honorable mention from the 2015 New York Book Festival.
Johnson holds a BFA in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s an alumna of the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab as well as The Prague Summer Program For Writers. She’s also a 2016 Callaloo Workshop Fellow.
Early life, education, career:
Johnson was raised in Monroe, New York in an upper middle class family. Her father Dr. William L. Johnson earned his PhD in psychology from Yeshiva University as well as a post doctoral degree in psychoanalysis. He studied with Theodor Reik, who was a student of Sigmund Freud. Dr. Johnson was appointed chief psychologist at Orange County Mental Health Clinic in the early 1960s. He was the first African-American in that position. Dr. Johnson was in private practice in Monroe and in New York City in Greenwich Village until 2013 when his health declined. His book Cosmologic Triadic Drive Theory: The Physics of the Psyche is scheduled for publication posthumously in 2016.
The Johnsons were among the first black families to live in Monroe. Johnson’s mother, Vera Peterkin Johnson opened an antiques business in the Monroe area in the late 1960s. Her shop, Tuxedo Antiques Center, remains in business in nearby Tuxedo, New York.
Johnson was educated in the Monroe area from nursery school through high school. She has published short stories based on her experience in the area, most notably in The Emerson Review where, “Claiming Tobias” (published April, 2013) recalls an early friendship with a neighborhood boy and a racial incident that ended their friendship.
The Johnsons traveled abroad extensively in the 60s and 70s making repeated trips to Europe and also to North and West Africa, Asia, and Turkey. Dr. Johnson served briefly on assignment for the Peace Corps in Ankara. An English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury Junior High publicly accused Johnson of lying when she told the class that she’d been to Japan. It was inconceivable to some locals that black Americans could have the means or interest to travel to Asia in the 1970s.
Eager to leave the area, Johnson, a member of the National Honor Society, acquired the necessary credits to graduate from Monroe-Woodbury High School a year early at age 16 in order to enter New York University, where she auditioned and was accepted to Tisch School of the Arts.
Johnson continued classes through each summer while at NYU, including a summer semester in London where she studied modern drama in performance and English literature. While enrolled in NYU she began studying screenwriting with Arnaud D’usseau and Venable Herndon. At 20, Johnson graduated from NYU and began studying script interpretation with Stella Adler, and playwriting with Charles Fuller, (A Soldiers Story), Judi Ann Mason (A Star Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hole in Heaven) and Leslie Lee (First Breeze of Summer). She later enrolled as a non-matriculated graduate student at City College of New York in Harlem and studied playwriting for several years with Arthur Kopit (Nine, Phantom of the Opera). At CCNY, she also studied African literature with Chinua Achebe.
During this time, Johnson was working as a professional actress, member of Equity, SAG and AFTRA and appearing in plays in New York, and regionally, and in movies and television, including films with Spike Lee, two ABC soap operas, All My Children and Loving, and a CBS School Break Special, “What if I’m Gay?” She also studied jazz vocals. After auditioning for a musical by Paul Streitz, Streitz paid for her voice lessons with renowned vocal coach Robert Marks for over a year. Emory Taylor (director of Harlem Opera Society) later taught her on scholarship for several years. She performed in showcases, as well as in Taylor’s Harlem Opera Society jazz musical “Solomon and Sheba” in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.
Johnson produced her first play, “Mommy Loves You” at the William Redfield Theater in the New York City theater district. Later that year, Johnson and several women colleagues in the group Black Women In Theater, along with playwright Leslie Lee, collaborated to create Here in my Father’s House a play that ran off-Broadway first at the Lambs Theater and later at NEC’s Theater Four. Samuel L. Jackson and James Pickens played roles in the productions as did the co-writers of the piece: Johnson, Ellen Cleghorne, Jewel Brimage, Cheryl Lane and Zelda Patterson. Her next play, “Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public” received numerous staged readings with Johnson in the lead role. The debut was at Frank Silver Writer’s Workshop in Harlem (Carla Brothers played the role). Later, The Ensemble Studio Theatre produced it for their Octoberfest. The New York Stage and Film Company produced the play as a mainstage production during their summer Powerhouse Theater session at Vassar College and starred Nicole Ari Parker, David Warshofsky and Eddie Cahill.
In 1992, Johnson moved from New York to Los Angeles where she transitioned into screenwriting after Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public garnered the attention of literary agent Dave Wirtshafter and she began writing for studios and networks, including Disney, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Fox, HBO, ABC, Summit Entertainment, Lifetime, and Showtime. She continues to develop film and television projects while also publishing essays, articles, and short and long-form fiction.