Today, Feb. 14, 2022, I make Broadway history as the first Black woman and woman of color to play the title role of Glinda in the Broadway production of “Wicked.” It is one of the greatest honors of my career thus far. I am so grateful to God for the opportunity. The term “Black History” has always felt misleading to me. It seemed to imply that Black triumphs, Black contributions, and even Black struggles, were all in the past. But the truth is: Black history is happening right now. Every day. I am living proof of that.
Ever since I was a child, I remember my deepest joys stemming from the ability to make someone else feel something. Being a fairly shy kid, I remember the otherworldly feeling that came over me the first time I stepped onto a stage to sing a solo at church. As terrifying as having hundreds of eyes on you can be, what was equally moving was watching those eyes well with tears when I opened my mouth to sing. It was in that moment when I first understood the power of art, the influence I had as an artist, and the responsibility I had to use that power for “good.”
“Goodness” is a running theme in “Wicked.” The show challenges the audiences’ perception of what it truly means to be “good”, and more notably in my opinion, what goodness requires. My casting in the role of Glinda is immensely significant because, for the first time in the show’s history, a Black woman is in a role that literally personifies goodness. From the moment I appear on stage I am given the benefit of the doubt toward innocence, purity of intention, and joyful ignorance. Audiences are patient and supportive of me as I grow and learn what it means to be truly “good.” I am given the space to make mistakes without their perception of me being permanently tarnished for my bad decisions. In this Black body, I am offered genuine empathy and care. And in the end, my “goodness” is solidified, not in spite of, but because of what I have endured and who I have chosen to be as a result.
“Goodness” cannot occur in a vacuum. It requires sacrifice and it has to be tested. But in our society, Black bodies, even Black children, are rarely given the benefit of the doubt or automatically assumed innocent. Seldom, if ever, are we given the opportunity for choice, let alone redemption, in the wake of a test.
For many in the audience, watching me play Glinda may be the first time they’ve felt this kind of inherent empathy for a Black character, or a Black person for that matter. That’s powerful. It naturally changes a narrative that they have been shown over and over in the media and entertainment industry about what to assume about Blackness. It is my hope that they then translate those empathetic feelings toward other Black people in their real lives. That is why representation is important; why it matters and has real life reverberations and consequences in our society.
The history that Black children are taught by their parents and loved ones is meant to instill pride in us for who we are and where we came from. It is to coat us in protective armor against a society that tells us we are “other” and therefore unworthy of what everyone else seems naturally entitled to. We are taught that we are the descendants of Kings and Queens and that our capabilities in this life are limitless.
Yet when I looked around, most portrayals of people who looked like me on television and in the movies were far from royal. The characters I saw to model myself after and look up to were mostly slaves, sidekicks, victims and criminals. There were so few positive representations of Blackness, and especially of Black women, that weren’t also accompanied by the trope of hardship, poverty, and violence. Thank God I was raised by a strong, intelligent and loving mother who embodied an alternate archetype for the kind of woman I could be. She is the reason I could look beyond what I saw all around me and imagine what was possible. But for many young Black children, it isn’t possible to dream beyond what they can see. And when you never see yourself represented as a leader, a free thinker, an inventor, a love interest, a royal, a person for whom respect is a given — how could you imagine yourself that way?
The opportunity to play Glinda, means giving young Black girls, and frankly people of color of all ages and genders, an opportunity to see themselves as nuanced and fully formed human beings who are capable of both strength and gentility. People whose very existence makes them inherently worthy of respect, care, empathy, joy and redemption. Little Black girls will get to see themselves being celebrated and loved for simply existing. They will get to see themselves wearing a crown.
There’s a photo I have of the first time I flew in Glinda’s “bubble” in one of my first rehearsals. I remember thinking in that moment, “I am the only Black person that has ever stood where I’m standing. Literally.” And I burst into tears of gratitude for the generations of people before me who dug their heels into the ground so that I could stand firmly on their shoulders. Black history is now, because every time I step onto that stage I am planting new roots, so that those who come after me can stand on my shoulders and flourish in the sunshine as a result of the hard ground that I broke.
Black history is now because every single Black body that walks on this earth represents a legacy — we are still here, still moving forward, still thriving and creating though people have been trying to eradicate us for centuries. Black History is American History. We are the builders of the past, the innovators of the present, and the hope of the future.
The needle toward inclusive representation in the entertainment industry is slowly inching forward, but we still have a LONG way to go before the need for phrases like “the first Black,” can be removed from our collective vernacular. I am confident that the day is coming and, as Glinda would say, “I couldn’t be happier” to be part of the movement forward!
Brittney Johnson is an actor who has also appeared on Broadway in “Les Misérables,” “Motown the Musical,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
Throughout the month of February, Variety will publish essays from prominent Black artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of Black entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.