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SCR's 'Jitney' to debut Friday

Kristy Johnson swapped a career in the courtroom for one on the stage. This is her debut at South Coast Repertory.

May 17, 2012|By Jenny Stockdale, Special to the Pilot
  • Larry Bates and Kristy Johnson in South Coast Repertory's 2012 production of "Jitney."
Larry Bates and Kristy Johnson in South Coast Repertory's… (Ben Horak, South…)

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."

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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."

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