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August 30, 2014, 12:18 am

Actress tackles complicated character

Growing up, Phyllis Johnson says she always loved story telling, but didn’t know how that would play out in her future.

“But in college I found that acting was the best way for me to do that,” says Johnson, now appearing in “Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night” at InterAct Theatre through June 24.

Today, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Johnson explains that as a girl she was read to a lot, feeling herself wrapped in a kind of visual communication and desperately wanting to participate. And although she danced for some years, she soon discovered that acting was the best medium by which to express herself.

“I have a twin sister who is also an actress and a filmmaker, and one day I watched her in a production of ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.’ I think every woman of color discovered acting through that play, and I was no exception. For me, it was a pivotal moment in my life, and that piece and the theater itself became something I aspired to,” Johnson explained.

And so began her personal theatrical journey. Appearing in feature films, she also appeared on Broadway in such productions as “A Naked Girl On The Appian Way.” Off-

Broadway credits include “Yokastas” and “Blue Before Morning,” for which she received the New York Innovative Theatre Award Nomination for Best Featured Actress, Best Ensemble. Johnson also appeared on television in “Law & Order,” “As The World Turns” and more.

Today, in her current role as Jules, Johnson portrays an African-American painter who has fled the U.S. under mysterious circumstances and embraced a whole new life and family in Iceland — the whitest place on earth. But several years into her idyllic reinvented life, a confluence of extraordinary events threaten to unravel her psyche: Barack Obama’s meteoric presidential campaign makes Jules more homesick than ever.

Then, her recently out-of-work banker husband, Olafur, presents their biracial daughter with a shocking present, and an inscrutable African-American visitor shows up at Jules’ studio. The collision of events provokes her conflicted sense of racial and personal identity, and brings the secrets of her past out into the open.

“This is a very challenging role,” Johnson says. “My character is a very complex woman and I’ve got to bring that out to the audience. She has secrets. And it’s almost as if there are three difference conversations that she’s involved in. The big challenge is to personalize each one and, in doing so, see how that works out with this woman in each emotional state so that her final experience makes sense.”

Although this role does call for an African-American actress, Johnson herself feels she’s been very lucky over the years and appeared in many roles that have not pigeonholed her.

“Every African-American actor will tell you how frustrating it is that often our talents are based on the way we look and not necessarily our real abilities or our life experiences,” Johnson reveals. “Often times, we are so pigeonholed, that a role is based even on the tone of our skin color. It hasn’t happened often to me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

Women, especially, Johnson continues, can even be judged on their looks alone. “Sometimes the projects I am interested in can be unavailable to me because the people producing the show want someone with a more commercial look or less of one than what they see in me. But, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes jump over the hurdles. I know I’m always looking for the next role I can do where I can express myself.”

For times and ticket information, call (215) 568-8079.