by Amy Woolsey
When the lights go down, Kashayna Johnson shines. The Petworth-based actress has performed at venues ranging from the opulent Kennedy Center to the intimate Anacostia Playhouse, but she still experiences the final moments before a show starts as a giddy rush.
Some people might describe that feeling as anxiety; Johnson calls it excitement.
“It’s not so much like I’m scared,” she said. “It’s a nervous energy, and I hope I continue to have that because what that means to me is that I really care about this performance and this story… But once I hit the stage and the show starts, the nerves go away, and I’m completely in it and I’m ready to go. I’m ready to play.”
On April 5, the day Arena Stage opens Junk: The Golden Age of Debt for its D.C. premiere, she will be more than ready. Ayad Akhtar’s play, which ran on Broadway in 2017 and received two Tony nominations, explores the lofty, ruthless world of 1980s Wall Street, following investment banker Robert Merkin as he masterminds a takeover. Johnson assumes the role of Jacqueline Blount, a Harvard-educated lawyer with “balls and charm to boot,” in the words of the dramatis personae.
Junk marks Johnson’s debut at Arena Stage, the fulfillment of a longtime dream. She remembers seeing a production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined there in 2011, shortly after the Mead Center underwent an extensive renovation. It was, according to Johnson, the “most compelling piece of theater I had ever seen up to that point,” featuring a curtain call as emotional as the play that preceded it.
“I had never seen a standing ovation in the round before,” she said. “Literally everyone was up on their feet applauding. And the lead actress – her name was Jenny Jules – that moment that she took in, it was just beautiful to experience and watch. I remember sitting down, and I started crying because it was overwhelming… And I remember looking down on the stage and thinking, I want to perform on this stage one day.”
Now, she has the chance to return to the site of that memory and experience it from a different perspective. Like Ruined, Junk will be presented on Fichandler Stage, the oldest theater at Arena Stage. Named after founding director Zelda Fichandler, the space hosted its first show in 1961.
“So many amazing artists have set foot on there,” Johnson said. “So many amazing plays and works have gone through there. I feel honored and privileged to be a part of that.”
Johnson was not destined to act. Born into a military family, with both of her parents, her sister, her grandfather, and many of her uncles joining the armed forces, she considers herself a black sheep. The Wiz piqued her interest in theater, inspiring her to audition for a school production at the age of 8. However, she missed out on the part, and it was not until she saw a presentation by the visual and performing arts coordinator from Maryland’s Suitland High School that Johnson decided to pursue acting as a career.
After graduating from Suitland, she attended Temple University in Philadelphia and the honors conservatory at the Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts in D.C. She also was accepted into the midsummer program at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, which not only helped enhance her appreciation for Shakespeare but also refined her skills.
“There’s just something so smart about [the British] approach to acting,” she said. “It’s not so much about the emotion, right? It’s so much more about the words. It’s like they’re always playing a match with each other, and it’s brilliant. So, that approach to text and circumstance I have back brought with me, I think, when it comes to approaching new works for sure.”
Evidently, training in the Bard’s homeland pays off, because upon her return stateside, Johnson landed the lead role in a production of Romeo & Juliet mounted by Prince George’s Shakespeare Theater Festival. She brings similar dedication to every part, from the teenage dreaming of She a Gem to the anguished vernacular poetry of For Colored Girls. For the latter, she earned a Helen Hayes nomination.
To prepare for Junk, she immersed herself in the “foreign terrain” of high finance, learning about the minutiae of junk bonds and boardroom deals. In addition to satisfying her natural hunger for knowledge, research allows Johnson to develop a closer connection to her characters.
“I want to do justice to the characters and who they represent,” she said. “They may be fictional on paper, but there’s someone out there in the world whose story this can be. This is a voice that probably hasn’t been heard yet, so I want to do my best to be honest.”
Whatever fears Johnson had about tackling such an esoteric subject were dwarfed by her passion for the character of Jacqueline. She relishes the opportunity to depict a narrative seldom seen in theater or fiction in general: that of a black woman in power. Although she struggles at times to make herself heard by her white male colleagues, Jacqueline navigates Wall Street with the poise of somebody who knows the game and the drive of somebody who wants to win it.
“She’s not waiting for permission,” Johnson explained. “She’s worked hard to get there. What I’ve learned by reading this play is that the rules are kind of developed as you go along. And it’s like once you learn the [rules], you can earn a piece of the pie, whether it be wealth, whether it be success, whether it be promotion.”
Behind the scenes, the vibe of Junk is more easygoing. Johnson credits director Jackie Maxwell with creating a collaborative environment, encouraging actors to experiment during rehearsal and holding one-on-one meetings to discuss the material in depth. Thanks to Maxwell and a crew that has arranged and marked out the rehearsal room while the set is being finished, she expects the transition to Fichandler to go smoothly.
This sense of camaraderie is why the New York native considers D.C. home.
“You really develop real relationships with other artists here,” she said. “And you don’t feel like you’re competing; you don’t feel like it’s a dog-eat-dog situation… Yeah, it feels good, and I feel like people are doing works that matter. It’s always great to feel like you’re coming together and creating something special.”
Anchored by a “great support system” of friends and family, Johnson carves out time between jobs to expand her horizons. She aims to travel at least twice a year, including once abroad; most recently, she visited Barbados, her mother’s birthplace. When not acting, she fuels her creative side by doing spoken word open-mics and watching live performances, whether plays or music concerts. A stint at Taste Wine Company in New York City turned Johnson into a self-described wine nerd, capable of tasting the difference between a Californian cabernet and a Chilean one.
Having varied interests, she believes, helps one become more well-rounded not only as a person but also as an artist. Acting, after all, is an exercise in empathy, compelling individuals to “walk in different people’s lives.” It requires curiosity as well as imagination.
Curiosity is a trait that Johnson shares with her Junk character. Like Jacqueline, she works in a challenging industry, where fortunes can rise and fall on a dime, and like Jacqueline, she thrives on challenges.
“It can be a little scary,” she said. “Stability isn’t necessarily something that’s guaranteed. But if you’re doing it for the love, if you’re doing it because it’s something you really enjoy doing, then you’ll find ways to make it work and you won’t get weary.”