Smithfield’s Olivia Johnston dreams of following in Broadway star’s footsteps

Published 12:36 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2024

When Smithfield High School junior Olivia Johnston arrives at the Governor’s School for the Arts each day, she walks past a blue banner at the school’s Norfolk campus displaying the headshot of 2005 GSA graduate-turned-Broadway star Adrienne Warren.

Johnston, who recently won The Smithfield Times’ fourth annual Black History Month essay contest, said Warren’s name was “immediate and obvious” when responding to this year’s prompt: “describe an African American in history, your life or your community who has made a positive impact and how that person personally inspired you.”

Johnston’s winning essay is published here.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Warren, originally from Chesapeake, originated the role of Tina Turner in the biographical Broadway musical “Tina” in 2019 knowing the real-life Turner was in the crowd, and went on to star alongside Viola Davis in “The Woman King,” a 2022 movie about the female warriors who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s.

Johnston, who comes from a military family, began acting roughly 10 years ago and is now hoping to follow in Warren’s footsteps. She was living in Naples, Italy, at an American military base in 2020 when she auditioned for GSA.

“Because of the time difference, I would stay up until midnight in order to join zoom meetings that discussed the process of how to apply,” Johnston said.

She ended up filming several tapes of herself, including two songs and three monologues.

“One callback and an awkward interview later, I received my acceptance letter,” Johnston said.

She begins each school day at 7:20 a.m. at Smithfield High, then leaves at 1 p.m. on a bus to Norfolk, where she attends classes at GSA from 2-5 p.m.

“Then I usually have rehearsal for the next production until 8,” Johnston said. “It’s a busy schedule, but I love what I do.”

GSA’s musical theatre classes are “rigorous, but very rewarding,” Johnston said.

She’s enrolled in ballet, tap, jazz, acting, improv, and audition tech classes as well as private vocal coaching.

Her goals include double majoring in journalism and the arts. Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, is on her shortlist of colleges.

“I love to write; maybe I will be a playwright one day,” Johnston said.

Johnston’s essay was one of five entries judged by a committee from The Schoolhouse Museum, which co-sponsors the contest with the Times.

Johnston will receive a $150 cash prize. The second- and third-place winners will earn cash prizes of $100 and $50, respectively.

Johnston is the daughter of Micheal and Kristin Johnston.

Smithfield High junior Peter Thompson’s essay, which won second place, is published here.