Shonni Johnson-Albritton (Class of ’06, B.A., theatre arts) was recognized as “Best Supporting Actress” at the NAACP Theatre Awards, which was held in August at the Director’s Guild of America in Hollywood. The theatre arts alumna received the award for her role in the 2009 university production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” Her most recent work is in the short, “Pearl,” directed by Zac Petrillo.
A veteran of the university stage with roles in CSU Dominguez Hills’ productions of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” “Lend Me a Tenor,” “A Doll’s House,” and “The Vagina Monologues,” Johnson-Albritton began her studies in the MFA program in theatre arts at UCLA this fall. She took time out from a typical 14-hour school day to tell Dateline about accolades from actors she had only admired from afar, the professionalism of fellow actors at her alma mater, and bringing her characters to life.
Dateline: What inspired you to begin acting?
Shonni Johnson-Albritton: It was something I always wanted to do. As a child I would entertain family and friends all the time. When I started at Dominguez in 2001, my intention was to be an English major and get my teaching credential, but I took Acting I with Professor (Donis) Leonard and realized that there was no way that I would go to college without getting a theatre degree.
Dateline: What was special about last year’s production of “Jitney”?
SJA: To celebrate his 10 years at Dominguez Hills, Professor Leonard wanted to bring together a number of alumni whose careers he had assisted in shaping. When I was cast in the role, I was very surprised. Since I was the only woman [in the cast], I think the guys didn’t really want it to be a boys’ club kind of thing… so I got their softer side and they were real gentlemen. Donis really has an eye for not just talent, but putting people in roles that fit them. In working with people who have been through the same [theatre arts] program and who had many of the same experiences that I did, there was a camaraderie among the cast that was special.
Dateline: Why do you think you won “Best Supporting Actress” for your role as “Rena”?
SJA: I ask myself that question all the time. I don’t know what I did that made it a winning performance, but I was under incredible direction, I was really challenged and pushed emotionally. I’m not a mother, I don’t have children. I had to create a story for myself and think about Rena from [when she was] a small child and develop her story prior to when we meet her onstage.
Whenever I go onstage, I make sure the audience is getting their money’s worth. I want them to be entertained and leave talking about it. While [a role] might not be my story, there might be someone in the audience who identifies with it. I’ll go to the lengths [necessary] to… make it real and raw to them, and make them feel that someone else has gone through what they have.
Dateline: What was it like to receive the award from the NAACP and the Hollywood community?
SJA: Every time I come into the door and see it there on top of the bookcase, I still can’t believe I won. For me, it was just a joy to be nominated. I wasn’t prepared to win but I wanted to be poised and nice for the person who did win.
When they actually called my name, I literally could not move. My cousin had to lift my arm to get me up because I was in shock. Once it happened, it was all a blur. One television actress said that in my speech, what really touched her was that I said that it was an important thing for me to be recognized by the NAACP and by my community in general.
I was beaming the whole night and getting genuine congratulations from people I had seen on TV, talking to actors who had done the same role a few years back. To me, winning that award meant that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. It was confirmation for me to keep moving in this direction.
Dateline: What’s next?
SJA: The next three years are dedicated to UCLA. It’s extremely intense, highly competitive. There are only nine in my class. I will be shaping and breaking down and reshaping all of my skills so at the end of my three years, I can be prepared for theater, television, and film.
Theatre is my first love. There is a great deal of discipline that one learns form doing theatre. After doing a film, I have great respect for film actors. I definitely want to teach at a collegiate level as well as teach children. I want to be a part of the creativity that children have, this natural ability they have to express themselves. My dream is to start an art camp that combines performing and visual arts for children in underrepresented communities. It’s very important for them to be exposed to the arts. With the connections I made and hope to make, I definitely see that camp starting on a small scale and eventually bringing it to communities across the country.
Dateline: Who have been your greatest inspirations?
SJA: I have to say Professor Leonard definitely has been my greatest inspiration. Also, I my family has really pushed me. They recognize my talent and love for acting. At the same time, I feel that this was what I was put here to do. I don’t see myself doing anything else.
It’s certainly not for the money, not now at least. Shirley Ralph said once, ‘I love it so much, it’d do it for free.’ I’ve worked office jobs and moonlighted and come back to Dominguez to do shows, everything I could, to entertain and bring these characters to life.
For information on theatre arts at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.