Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Dion Johnstone

Artist Profile by Emma Darcy Schneider


Dion Johnstone is a Canadian actor. He was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1975 and was raised in Edmonton, Alberta. Dion studied theatre acting at the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre and the University of Alberta, and now lives in Toronto with his wife Lisa Berry (a fellow actor) and their daughter. Johnstone’s work spans genres of comedy and drama in both theatre and film. 

A great lover of Shakespeare, he has honed his skills over nine seasons with Canada’s Stratford Festival and has played a great number of theatrical roles. Some of Johnstone’s favorite theatrical roles include playing the title role in Othello directed by Chris Abraham for the Stratford Festival, playing Caliban opposite Christopher Plummer’s Prospero in The Tempest (directed by Des McAnuff for the Stratford Festival), and portraying Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet, directed by Gary Griffin for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Some of Johnstone’s other theatrical roles include Brutus, Marc Antony, and Octavius Caesar in Julius Caesar (separate productions), Jay Jackson in The Royale, Coriolanus in Coriolanus, Hero in Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3, Theseus and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (separate productions), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Valentine in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Macduff in Macbeth, Orlando in As You Like It, Iachimo in Cymbeline, and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.

Some of Johnstone’s most well-known on-screen roles include playing Erik Whitley in Netflix’s Sweet Magnolias, Devin in UPtv’s Ties That Bind, Johnny in the TV mini-series The Sea Wolf (starring Neve Campbell and Tim Roth), and Craig Brooks in Nickelodeon’s Star Falls. Other television and film roles include Alan Marshall in Hallmark’s A Family Christmas Gift, Barnaby Howe in CTV’s Flashpoint, William Still in PBS’s Underground Railroad: The William Still Story, Nathan in Showtime’s Jeremiah, Henry Price in TNT’s Breaking News, and Detective Hanson in Fox’s Beyond Belief.

Contact Information

For Dion Johnstone’s contact information, click here.

Full Interview Transcript


Schneider: Just to get us started, I’m a little bit familiar with some of your work. I think I told you, but I saw you in Red Velvet back several years ago at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and have followed you ever since because I was so impressed with your performance. So I’m familiar with some of your theatre and film work, but I’m wondering how you got your start in acting. What drew you to it in the first place, and what do you see as your purpose behind what you do as an actor?

Johnstone: Well, I’m Canadian, so I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and my earliest influences were largely comic books. So the era that we live in now with all of the Marvel films and the DC franchises is like gravy for me, because I know all of those stories straight to my core. I used to be a comic book artist as well, so it was something I took very seriously. And what I loved about it was the mythology behind it. When I started getting into literature, one of the first things I stumbled upon were the Greek and Norse myths. My parents got me a Bulfinch’s Mythology, and I started to see the similarities between the comics I was reading and the Greek and Norse mythology. So I began to love myths as well. 

Then, when I was in school and we started studying Shakespeare, I quickly started to recognize, “Wow, a lot of the metaphors and the symbolism that’s being used comes out of Greek mythology.” So I understood the metaphors that were being used, and I had an innate connection to the language. 

For me, very quickly in terms of acting, I stumbled straight into Shakespeare, and I connect that, in the funniest of ways, all the way back to comic books. In fact, my parents were like, “We love that you love comic books, but we would love to see you explore literature.” Before giving me the Bulfinch’s Mythology, there was a transition step where they found at a flea market these classic comics— comics done in the ‘50s and ‘60s— but were based off The Three Musketeers and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And one of them was Julius Caesar, so I even had pictures in my head of what the story looked like from that comic book I had as a kid. So I had an “in” and an easy, natural feel for language and mythology and symbolism that none of my cohorts in school had. When we had to trade off reading passages from Shakespeare, everyone was stumbling over it and just hating it. I was like, “When can I get on a stage?”

The thing that I love about acting is that we’re doing it constantly in our daily lives. We’re manifesting this idea of who we are and creating our vision of the world around us based off of our thoughts and our intentions. Acting just seems like a perfect metaphor and a wonderful way of exploring those tools. I’ve found that through acting, I get the opportunity to learn more about the human condition and more about myself through doing the detective work of, “Why would a person do this? What would be the needed motivation to get me from this step to that step?” And if it’s outside of the realm of what I’m comfortable thinking, then I really have to do some work to explore, “What would a person be like? What would be necessary to be able to think in a way that would allow that to happen?” I love the detective work. 

Through acting, I get to understand more of who we are and also act as a proxy for the audience so that audience members who don’t have the confidence to do that in their own lives can explore those ideas, can have that experience themselves through me, through watching me go through it. I think there’s a wonderful role that we have, as actors, to society in terms of what we provide for audiences. It’s the opportunity to reflect on themselves and their own condition and step outside of themselves in a safe way. That’s what draws me to it and what ultimately I feel my purpose in it is.

Schneider: It’s interesting to me because it sounds like Shakespeare actually was part of your early interest in acting. We went from comic books to mythology to Shakespeare and your desire to get that onto the stage. That’s really interesting that Shakespeare is so tied to your early interest in acting. I know you’ve done some Shakespeare and some not-Shakespeare, so out of the whole canon of your work, what are some of the most meaningful roles that you’ve played, and why do you think those roles are important to you?

Johnstone: Funny enough that you mentioned Red Velvet as being the first time that you saw me; I think that, for me, was one of the most amazing opportunities that I’ve been given as an actor for so many reasons. It’s such a challenging role. Number one, you’re playing a man at the blossoming of his career and at the very end of his life, and there’s a span of thirty years in between. 

There’s that challenge alone, but I had never heard of Ira Aldridge. I’d heard his name, but I didn’t know about him, and he certainly wasn’t brought up in any of my theatre school studies. So it was only when I got the role and started to do the research that I came upon his very extensive documented history, and it blew me away. It made me feel like, “What could my life be as an actor if I already knew that that ground had been broken to such an incredible extent before me— if I didn’t feel like I was doing something where I was one of the first people who were doing it?” 

There weren’t a lot of other Black actors doing Shakespeare in my community growing up, so I always felt like an anomaly. There was a lot of subtle psychological work that I had to do to keep myself in a space where I could do it and feel that I had a right to do it. And that’s the experience of any Black actor doing classical work, but that’s a big challenge. But to know that not only did he play Othello— the first Black actor to play Othello on the London Covent Garden stage— but he also played Shylock. He played Macbeth. He played all of these different roles, and he did it well. That blew my mind. The fact that I didn’t know that was shocking, and the gift of being able to be in that skin for that period of   time gave me so much. 

It’s great to play roles where you feel like you’re giving a contribution so the next generation of artists or audience members who are out there watching the play (as challenging as the play is to see) are getting a direct experience of an imagining of history. That’s theirs now. They have it with them. They can go through life knowing, especially if you’re an artist of color, “Someone did this before me, and they did it to great excellence.” So that was really cool. 

Another role was a character called Jay Jackson, and he’s a boxer in a play called The Royale written by Marco Ramirez.  It’s loosely based on the Jack Johnson story. Jack Johnson was the first African American boxer to become the World Heavyweight Champion. He got that title, I believe, in 1908, but then he had to fight to retain it in 1910, which they called the “fight of the century.” He won that fight as well. 

That was another wonderful experience because I didn’t know much about Jack Johnson, and there’s another guy who was breaking barriers in history but has been buried in the past and is only now starting to get his comeuppance again. It was a great physical role because there was a stylized form of boxing that I needed to learn in order to be able to perform it. The language was very poetic and rhythmic and very much using language to create a sensation of being inside the head of a boxer during a match, which was brilliant. And through all of that, dealing with his wrestling with, “What is my responsibility to my community because I’m Black?” but also, “What’s my responsibility to myself and my own hopes and my own dreams, because I am who I am?” and the conflict of those, which I found fascinating. So that was a great role to play too.

Schneider: I’m glad that Red Velvet was such a great experience for you too. It sounds like both of these roles that you’ve mentioned point to that you’re gaining something, as well. As much as you’re giving in performing, you’re gaining some sort of inspiration from the characters. I found it interesting that for both of the characters that you mentioned, their Black identity is quite central to their conflict. You’re touching on this a little bit, but I wonder if you can expand on what it means to you to be a Black actor and to play Black characters and what you see as valuable or important for you in that.

Johnstone: It’s a challenging question because on one level, I’m just an actor. I see myself as playing roles and wanting to challenge myself as any other actor. Why the need for Black actor? But I’m also Black, and there are challenges inherently that come with that. 

I think about growing up. There were a certain set of images I received from the films and the music that I saw of what was culturally accepted as, “This is Black identity.” And it had a lot of positive stuff to it and a lot of negative stuff to it. It was a limited vision of what it means to be Black. Thankfully, as time has evolved and as things are continuing to open up, we’re beginning to see far more diversity within the Black community and realize that we all have a shared common understanding in the American identity (and the Canadian to an extent) but we’re all different within that. We all have different histories, different upbringings, different belief systems.

I feel that as a Black actor, I have the opportunity to add to that by not playing into the same kind of tropes I’ve seen in the past but by offering a different light based off of what my experience has been. Also, the roles that have been Black- specific roles that have really interested me have been ones where I go, “Wow, this is uncovering something that I didn’t know was there,” and that, when I talk to a lot of people around me, they didn’t know was there. So there are a lot of hidden gems out there that have yet to be uncovered. I feel that’s an opportunity, as an actor, to keep an eye out for those and to be a part of that. 

I feel that there is such an advantage a person has when they know the shoulders that they stand on, when they know where they’re coming from and can get that leg up. I think right now, within the Black community, we need as much of that as   possible because so much of that history has been hidden from us. We’re not allowed to be told; we’re buried. We don’t know the greatness that we come from in its full extent. So I feel I have those opportunities, being a Black actor, to do that. But in and outside of that, I don’t want to limit myself. I feel, in the end, that it’s also about transcending that because being an actor is stepping outside of yourself too.

Schneider: That really leads well into my next question, which is: What kind of negative situations or circumstances have you experienced as a Black actor? You’ve touched on that a little bit and said that there’s been progress made from when you were younger, but I’m wondering if you can think of any situations or circumstances which you viewed as negative? If you were able to overcome those in some way, how? What do you wish that others would have done differently in those situations?

Johnstone: The most direct experience that I’ve had was when I was in theatre school. We were in our second year and performing Shaw. We were doing a production of Major Barbara, and I wanted to audition for the role of Father Undershaft. No other actor wanted that role. Our director, I remember telling me, “Well, that would be too much of a challenge for you. You would have to go against your entire cultural identity. We need to find a role that’s more appropriate for you.” 

So the role I ended up getting was the butler and a street urchin, who’s a great character in it. Both of them— there is no bad character in Shaw. But it was interesting. They were characters that you could easily justify me as playing. 

So when I had an interview with the board at the end of the year (they interviewed all the students because we were about to go into our third year and they wanted to know what we foresaw for ourselves and what challenges), I said, “I’ve been largely happy with everything I’ve been receiving and the training. But I’ve noticed that I’ve never played a lover. I’ve never played the hero. I’m never central family member. I’m always playing roles where I’m relegated to the side in a way that could be justifiable. And ultimately, as long as I have a good story, I don’t care. But on the same token, I want to know what it feels like to be the hero, what it feels like to be a part of the family.” This shocked the board. This was something that they didn’t realize; it hadn’t factored in their perception. They looked at it and were like, “Wow, yeah. Wow.” They really worked in my final year to change that. But I know systemically that’s been an issue over many theatre schools and many theatre companies that really haven’t known how to deal with doing the classics with race. So that was a direct experience that happened. 

And not too long ago— and I won’t mention companies or anything like that— but I do remember doing a production, and this was more recent. There were a handful of Black actors in the company, as often is. It was a classical piece. I would say that we failed to have a conversation in the rehearsal hall about how race factored into the world that we were creating. Neither of us as actors communicated with each other until after the fact, when the production went up and we all started to get to know each other and relax a little bit. I started to realize that other people were feeling the same way. 

You realize that we’ve been trained to fall into place and trained to figure it out for yourself. And because it wasn’t an overt thing— it was just one of those subtle little things, the subtle little thing of not even having the conversation— leaves all these open ends that you as the actor are left to carry. What does race mean in the context of the relationship that I’m in, if I’m not with another actor who’s Black? What does that mean in the context of the society we live in? What does it mean in the context of the world that we’re building? Even just answering those questions puts it in a context that makes it more playable and, by that definition, makes it more inclusive. 

The tradeoff of that is it’s not just the experience of the actor in the role; it’s the experience of the audience coming to see the play. 

I remember watching a play where I saw a line delivered by an actor who I knew was of mixed race. It was one of those things where they were at a party, sort of a soiree. It was kind of like The Count of Monte Cristo— one of those swashbuckling tales. Everyone panics at this party because a big event happens, and she says, “Oh my god, the slaves— or the negros— are attacking!” It was delivered in a way where (I was sitting with another actor who was Black) the moment she said it, it was like someone reached out and slapped us across the face. I was just stunned. And I was stunned not because she said that, but because it was said in a way that there was no awareness behind it, as if she hadn’t really thought about what she was saying or the director hadn’t thought about the implications of what she was saying. There was no story behind it; it was just said. For the audience, which was largely white, it probably passed over them and they didn’t think about it. But for audience members who were of color, it hit you like a gut punch. 

You think about all of those productions where those questions aren’t taken care of, where they’re left hanging like they don’t matter. What does it do to that audience? Also, you don’t feel like you’re included, that this isn’t a world that you’re a part of or respected or any care. You’re just hit all of a sudden. It occurred to me that, in this recent production that I had done, to any member of color in the audience, they might have noticed that, “Yeah, there were Black actors in the show. That’s great, and you can say technically there’s representation. But there was no feel for what that meant in the world. I got no sense of who they were.” So there becomes a missing piece that certain parts of the audience feel. 

And you wonder why a lot of Black people don’t like going to classical theatre. It’s not that they wouldn’t enjoy it, but they don’t see themselves represented on that stage. I think there’s easy ways where they could be represented. Even having the conversation helps. I think there’s many ways, but even just having the conversation of, “In the context of our world, what does this mean?” I think recent events that have sent a shock wave through the industry will help to change that. I feel actors have the opportunity of feeling more empowered. The onus shouldn’t be on you as an actor, but on the same token, if you don’t get your questions answered, you’re left holding the ball. So in a way, you should be self-motivated to bring it up if it’s not being brought up.

Schneider: Are you familiar with We See You White American Theatre? It’s a manifesto.

Johnstone: I heard about it, yes. That passed two summers ago, right? A very similar thing, yeah. Tell me about it.

Schneider: I hear you echoing something that is foundational to that manifesto, which is the problem of acceptance of Black bodies without the acceptance of Black culture and how putting a Black person on the stage does not mean that you’ve done your job of representation. Black culture is important, and too many productions say, “We’re going to put Black people on our stage or on the screen, but we are going to assume that they will assimilate into what we think of as our ‘normal’ culture, which is white culture and the problem of that. I wondered if you were familiar because that’s a really strong aspect of that manifesto that I hear you echoing, which is really interesting.

Johnstone: Yeah, I am familiar with that. Around that same time, a shock wave went through the Canadian theatre industry as well. It’s been very reassuring and interesting seeing the response that the Canadian theatre community has had and the changes they are working to implement. Once our theaters open and we see what the new visions are, it all remains to be seen how things are implementing. Certainly, this period of time— a shutdown of theatre, all of the events that came after George Floyd’s murder— have brought us face to face with these issues. It feels like (only time will tell) that we may be starting to finally address it in a meaningful way.

Schneider: I hope so. I really do. If I can pivot us a little bit, I wanted to ask you if you might comment on your relationship to Shakespeare. I know you talked about how it was an early inspiration towards acting for you, but how do you relate to Shakespeare? Has that changed over time?

Johnstone: My love for Shakespeare is in language. What I love about Shakespeare is the architecture of language. One of the courses that I’ve begun to teach (it was really developed from what I learned when I was training at Stratford) is in rhetoric. Basically, using the tools of argument that are so prevalent in Shakespeare’s language— his use of ethos, logos, and pathos— and how those pillars and structures are used to convince and sway and woo and win your listener or the other character or, ultimately, your audience. 

And what I love about that is that’s what’s used in messaging towards us everyday. When we look at the news, when we go through our Twitter feed, when we scroll through social media— whether it’s in images, whether it’s headlines— we’re constantly having information thrown at us that’s meant to sway our emotions and direct our thought and energy, and it uses different coded styles of language.

I find understanding Shakespeare— being able to understand the complexity of his thought— gives you more discernment and gives you power over those tools. Certainly, as an actor, it makes other forms of acting easier because you can start to see the bare skeleton of a thought and go, “I see what they’re trying to do there” and fill it in. We live in the structure, in the North American world, of the English language, so I feel the more of an understanding we can have of it, the more discernment we have, the more enjoyment we can have walking around in that world, the more we can be aware of what might be played on us as well. So that’s what I’ve really come to love about Shakespeare, is the opportunity to continue to hone those tools. 

What I love are the actors who take this language that needs to be heightened— you can’t make it pedestrian or else it loses the air and doesn’t work— but they can still speak it in a way that sounds completely direct, almost natural, “I understand you a hundred percent.” There’s nothing stage-y or removed with how you’re communicating with me, even though your speaking very heightened language. I think it’s a marvelous skill and challenge, and it feels good to speak it, to embody those thoughts, to have them coursing through your body and spirit.

Schneider: That’s something I really admire about Shakespearean actors: their ability to communicate in such a grounded way using this beautiful, heightened language. It feels oxymoronic, so that’s really impressive. My next question for you is also about Shakespeare and Shakespearean works, and this is something that we’ve been talking a lot about in the class that’s working on this database. Do you think that Shakespearean works which potentially marginalize people of color have a place on today’s stage or screen?

Johnstone: I think ultimately, in your consideration, you have to ask, “Why is this necessary? Why do I want to tell this story? How does this story have benefit to teach, to heal, to better my audience?” I think the missing piece, through a lot of this, has been not being inclusive of who’s coming to watch. Who are these plays affecting? 

Shakespeare works on opposites, so black and white is central, fair and dark. Those can be used in ways that have great meaning because he’s often doing antithesis. So he’s saying, “What seems fair is not necessarily fair” and “What seems dark is not necessarily dark.” There’s great opportunity for explanation and for deconstructing those ideas if you look for it in the language. And there’s other times where it’s archaic and it could be cut. It’s not useful, it’s not really moving anything forward, and it’s hard to perform it in a way that doesn’t sound offensive or hurtful. 

That’s why I think those discussions have to happen in the rehearsal hall point for point: “What are we going to do about this? Is this useful? Is it harmful? Should we get rid of it? Can it be performed in a way that there’s meaning to the highest good?” I feel if those discussions continue to happen, these challenging plays can continue to have a space. There’s so much good in the plays. To throw the baby out with the bath water, you miss some great opportunities. I think there are ways of doing them.

Schneider: I love that answer. That’s something I haven’t heard yet in other people who we’ve been interviewing: this idea that the story is still valuable and we don’t have to be married to every word of the language. Despite Shakespeare’s language being beautiful, we can cut things if they don’t serve the overall purpose. And I love what you’re talking about with the intentionality behind that time. I think that’s something that often times is overlooked in rehearsal spaces. To finish us off, I was wondering if you would share with me your hope for the future of your industry in relation to race. And I also wonder if you might comment on where you see yourself in that future.

Johnstone: Great question. I suppose in a way, it’s a summary of everything I’ve been saying, and it’s going back to that missing piece. When Othello was first performed, it was never intended for a Black audience. It was written in England by a white playwright imagining an idea of what a Moorish general might be, and it was done in Blackface. So the audience members watching it— because they knew it was Blackface— in a way, it was like a mask. It allowed them an escape so they could imagine themselves in the world. It was only when Ira Aldridge stepped in the role and they saw an actual Black man in the role that their own preconceptions were challenged. And it also became a very dangerous play to watch because they’re seeing a Black man up there with a white woman who looks like he’s manhandling her, and it’s offensive and scary and all of their fears were brought up. The play wasn’t intended for a man of color to play it. 

Then you flash forward. What I feel was never adjusted was we began to become accustomed to seeing actors of color in the role, but there was never any thought about, “What’s it like for audiences of color watching that play?” I think we haven’t fully thought about our audiences and why we put on plays in terms of, what are we trying to do for our society with these plays? Classical plays. Modern plays can be more specific about that, but the rehashing of these classical plays. What are we trying to say about our audience— our society— right now with this? How can we be more inclusive of their stories in this? 

Because these stories are universal, it has the capacity to hold many cultures. Shakespeare himself was already imagining the idea of a society. He wasn’t literally talking about Rome; he didn’t know Rome. He wasn’t literally talking about a Moor; he had a vague idea of what a Moor was. He was really talking about the human condition. That’s why I feel like we can do these plays in so many different ways, and they can be sustained. 

I would love to see more bravery, more risk into exploring what that means. How can we be more inclusive? How can we have more of those discussions and figure that out more so that people don’t feel excluded from the story, from the world, and from the process, if they’re involved in it? 

I think that’s been ripped wide open, and that’s the frontier we’re at. I’m excited to see, as we start to come back, how theaters approach this. I don’t think it’s going to be enough anymore to just do a Shakespeare play. Even in the teaching that I’ve done, I’ve had a lot of questions as to, “Why even teach this? And why you as a Black man— why are you teaching this?” I’ve had to really question. With me, again, it’s language. We walk in this world of English, and the  language has the ability to create the reality as we perceive it, to include and exclude. To know the structure of what’s being used— what we’re all accepting— and to know how to work with it and change it gives you more power, more discernment. But to not have access to that leaves you prey to it. I think there is value, while we continue to participate in this language, to understand it. I think one of the highest forms and uses and the manipulation of it is Shakespeare, but I think it’s plastic. 

I had the great pleasure of being in a King Lear with Glenda Jackson playing Lear. And I’ve been in previous productions of Lear as well. It was amazing the little bits of new understandings that I would hear in the language that were absolutely Lear, but I had never heard it in another performance. 

Stratford in Ontario was about to do a production of Hamlet with a Black female playing Hamlet. I was like, “Oh my god, that would be mind- blowing.” Then the pandemic happened, and everything got shut down. My hopes are that they’ll pick that up and end up doing that production because it’s so fascinating to see what new kernels— what new insight— can be brought that is in the language. It’s all there. It has multiple, multiple meanings, and there’s lots yet to be explored.

Myself? What part do I see in it? I would love to be a part of it, certainly. I hope that in rehearsals that I have ahead and in opportunities I have ahead that I have more foresight— seize the chance to have conversation now and in the moment— more foresight to ask those questions and to keep digging and help prop the doors open so that each rehearsal space has the potential for doing more.

Schneider: That’s absolutely wonderful and eloquently put. Thank you. Thank you so much for answering all of these questions and giving them your thought. I really appreciate it.

Johnstone: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.

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