In 2008, actor Don Laurin Johnson was under his truck making repairs and adjustments when he got a text from his mother, Sybil Barnes-Johnson. Barnes-Johnson was the director of the theater-arts program at Hillsborough Community College, in Tampa, where the founder and Artistic Director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Nate Jacobs was holding auditions.
“She said, ‘Look … you really need to come audition for these guys,’” he says.
And because he’s a self-admitted momma’s boy, Johnson rolled out from under his automobile and went straight to the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe audition wearing a white tank top covered in grease and oil. His audition was charismatic enough to get him cast in “A Soldier’s Play,” in February 2008, and shortly after, “Hot Mikado,” in March. Thirty-two-year-old Johnson is currently appearing in WBTT’s “August Wilson’s Jitney” that runs through Feb. 3.
The show is set in late-’70s Pittsburgh when unlicensed cab drivers, or jitneys, were struggling to find accomplishment in their surrounding environment. Johnson plays the role of Booster, the son of Jitney Cab Service owner Jim Beckett, who has just returned from a 20-year incarceration. Johnson describes his character as “the feeling of being privy to a conversation you shouldn’t be allowed to hear.”
It was Johnson’s mother who helped develop his interest in theater. She was the first black woman cast on stage at the Falk Theatre in Tampa decades ago. She was cast as the fairy godmother in “Cinderella.”
“(Because of my mom), I was always around actors, poets, dancers — the people who have cool stuff to talk about,” Johnson says.
Johnson was exposed to theater and positioned around performers at an early age. In fact, he learned to read when he was 6 years old because he would run lines with his mom in the car. He grew up reading comics during her rehearsals.
Aside from “the many (plays) my mom forced me to do as a kid,” Johnson was not bit with the acting bug until college. In 2002, Johnson was working with the South Carolina Shakespeare Company. He was in “Twelfth Night,” “Othello” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“It was my first time on stage as an adult with a real sense of craft, seeing how plays are built,” he says.
At the time, Johnson was studying Japanese language and culture at Benedict College, a small liberal arts school in South Carolina.
“I have always had a love affair with East Asian culture,” he says, “It started when I was 3 years old. My dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said ‘Chinese.’” Johnson laughs deeply, explaining that he always loved Bruce Lee and Chinese food — so it made sense.
He studied Kung Fu as a child and continues to study it today. Johnson tries to use his knowledge and language skills when he’s eating at restaurants, but has come to find that most of the restaurant employees aren’t even Japanese.
His experience with WBTT has led him to become even more serious about professional acting, and he plans to work with WBTT as long as it will have him.
Aside from acting, Johnson is currently enrolled in an Africana studies program at the University of South Florida. But Johnson’s not all work and school these days, he’s got bigger — or, in this case — smaller things on which to focus.
On Dec. 10, he and his wife, Sophia, welcomed their second daughter, Sophia Naomi, to the world — he smiles big when he talks about her. Their other daughter, Ruh, is 11 years old. Throughout the interview, it’s clear he’s anxious to get home because he keeps circling back to his family.
“If I’m not on stage performing, I’ll be doing it in the mirror or for my daughters,” he says. “I’m always trying to get people to laugh or take notice of what I said.”
In 10 years, Johnson says he sees himself with a 21-year-old daughter probably calling and asking for money, and then laughs a contagious laugh.
“I want to be really good at being a human being,” he says. “I just want to be the best at that that I can be.”
IF YOU GO
‘August Wilson’s Jitney’
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 2; runs through Feb. 3
Where: WBTT Theatre, 1646 10th Way
Info: Call 366-1505