TONI ANN JOHNSON is the winner of the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction with her linked collection Light Skin Gone to Waste, released in October 2022. Roxane Gay selected the book for the prize and is its editor. Johnson’s novella Homegoing was a semi-finalist for the William Faulkner Wisdom Award in fiction. It won Accents Publishing’s inaugural novella contest in 2020 and was released in May of 2021. The novel Remedy For a Broken Angel was released in 2014 and earned Johnson a 2015 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author.
In 1998 Johnson won the Christopher Award and the Humanitas Prize for her screenplay “Ruby Bridges,” the Disney/ABC movie and true story of the young girl who integrated into the New Orleans Public School system. 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 that came together to form a hip hop group in the wake of the 1991 Crown Heights Riots. In 2000, 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. In 2002, she wrote the television pilot “Save The Last Dance,” produced for Fox Television and based on the hit feature film, on which she was a participating writer. Johnson also co-wrote the 2008 feature, “Step Up 2: The Streets,” the second installment of the international Step Up franchise.
The Fountainhead Theater Company produced Johnson’s stage play Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public in Los Angeles in 1994 with Johnson in the lead role of Luna. The play subsequently received a main-stage production by The New York Stage and Film Company at Vassar College in 1999 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 Cleghorne, Cheryl Lane, Zelda Patterson, and Jewel Brimage. It was directed by DouglasTurner 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 Callaloo, Hunger Mountain, Vida Review, The Coachella Review, The Emerson Review, Aunt Chloe: A Journal of Artful Candor, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Arlijo Journal, Red Fez, Serving House Journal, Soundings Review, Xavier Review, the Reading Out Loud podcast, and The Missouri Review’s Miller Aud-Cast. She won the 2021 Miller Audio Prize for prose with her reading of her short story “Time Travel.”
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 and the Prague Summer Program For Writers. She was a 2016 Callaloo Writer’s Workshop Fellow, and in 2018, Johnson was a participant in the One Story Summer Conference.
In 2017, Johnson joined the University of Southern California faculty, where she taught screenwriting to undergraduates and graduate students in the School of Cinematic Arts through 2020. In the spring of 2022, she joined the faculty of Antioch University Los Angeles where she teaches fiction and screenwriting.
Early life, education, and career
Johnson was raised in Monroe, New York, in an upper-middle-class family. Her father, Dr. William L. Johnson, earned his Ph.D. 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 was published posthumously in 2018.
The Johnsons were among the first Black families to live in Monroe. Johnson’s mother, Vera Peterkin Johnson, opened an antique business in the Monroe area in the late 1960s. Vera Johnson Antiques, remains in business near Monroe in 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. In 2019, her story “The Way We Fell Out of Touch,” based on her mother’s relationship with the family’s white housekeeper, was published in Callaloo Journal.
The Johnsons traveled abroad extensively in the 60s and 70s, making repeated trips to Europe, 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 to enter New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Johnson continued classes each summer at NYU, including a summer semester in London where she studied modern drama in performance and English literature. While enrolled in NYU, she studied 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, a member of Equity, SAG, and AFTRA, and appearing in plays in New York, and regionally (at The Cleveland Playhouse) 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, and 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 New York City’s 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 then 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 subsequent 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 main-stage production during their summer Powerhouse Theater session at Vassar College. It 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.