His name means “the one who shall be king.” He was accepted to Juilliard—and turned it down—and his very first audition out of college was for the cultural phenom that is Hamilton The Musical. He ended up landing the second national tour (coming to the Peace Center, December 4–16). He’s worked hard to get where he is—and where he’s going? Only his agent might know for sure, but we’re betting the phone is ringing off the hook, because according from fans and reviews, his performance of Hamilton is off the chain. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Wonza Johnson.
Tell me about your name. >> It’s West African. My dad is from Ghana, and it means ‘the one who shall be king.’ I get ‘Wonza’ all the time, but it’s actually [pronounced] ‘Won-zay.’
Congratulations on the success! How did you get to this point? We know the Governor’s School here in Greenville played a part. >> I started performing around fifth grade and auditioned for the community playhouse where I am from in Lancaster County, South Carolina. They were doing Tom Sawyer, and I got cast in one of the supporting roles, and the director said, ‘You know, in every scene you kind of steal the show. I think this is something you really want to do.’ So I ended up going to the magnet program called Andrew Jackson Middle School, which is arts-focused and drama-focused. The bus would drive me from Lancaster to Kershaw, and then around the time of middle school, I got my real taste of the Governor’s School, and I loved, loved, loved it. I thought it was the level of training that I should be getting and everything felt right. I ended up going to the two-year residential program and getting the best training acting-wise. I found my passion for musical theatre. I actually got in Juilliard and ended up not going. It was an alumni of our program and a faculty member who said, ‘If you really have this passion for musical theatre, this really might not be the school that’s right for you because you won’t get that training.’
Wow! How many people turn down Juilliard, you know? >> Hearing someone say that made me feel like University of Michigan really was the right choice for me—and it was because I ended up being in the best musical that has been created in the last few years, and it’s a phenomenon, and I’m playing Alexander Hamilton, which is an amazing role for an actor in the world of musical theatre. The training that I got from Michigan, and, of course, the training that I got from Governor’s School set me apart.
“I don’t know what is next, but as long as you put in the work and set goals, you’ll end up where your path is meant to lead you.”—Wonza Johnson
Right. >> I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without the Governor’s School because it got me everything that I really needed and set me up for the right path.
Explain this to me. Some nights you play the lead, Hamilton, and then sometimes you won’t? >> I’m in the ensemble; I’m an onstage understudy. There are six male ensemble tracks, and I’m man five. I play three different parts. I go on for the actor who plays Hamilton on Tuesday, just to start the week off because it’s such a taxing role. I have a lot of roles that I understudy and cover. It’s been very challenging and very rewarding because it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life.
When you’re here in Greenville, will you play Hamilton? >> Yes, I’ll play him twice. On the first week, the last Sunday night show, and on Tuesday of the second week.
How do you keep all these roles straight? >> Since the track that I do every night is second nature, I like to focus on another track just to review it and watch them. I have these things called tracking sheets, which mark everyone’s entrances and exits and traffic and props that they pick up. So if I’m going on—I usually get a two- or three-hour notice—I’ll read that and review it and do my best to compartmentalize each person as something completely different.
When is this wrapping? >> We have dates for five years. I just talked to my agent, and we’re trying to figure out what’s next for me because it’s hard to be auditioning in New York when I’m on tour. No matter what, I’ll always be a part of the Hamilton family . . . I want to use this as a launching pad and keep my career going. I don’t know what is next, but as long as you put in the work and set goals, you’ll end up where your path is meant to lead you.