You might want to tune in to the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) Wednesday evening. Those in the Hartford/Bloomfield/South Windsor area will surely see a familiar face. Hartford native, actress Kendra C. Johnson will star in the new writer/director/actor Tyler Perry TV comedy, “Love Thy Neighbor” which premieres at 9 p.m. (EST) Best known for her starring role in the independent feature “Phat Girls” and her recurring role in the hit BET television series “The Game,” Johnson is also an editor for PLUS Model Magazine and a passionate advocate for breast cancer research and awareness. Often in Connecticut to visit family and friends, Johnson was excited about the new show and about updating her home state of Connecticut by Spilling the Beans with Java.
Q: I can’t imagine anything more fun than working with Tyler Perry. How did you get the role?
A: I did a film with him and then was asked to audition for two shows he is doing, one the comedy and another called “The Haves and Have Nots” that is a drama. I was at my grandmother’s in Windsor when I got the call to audition, did that the week before Christmas, and we were on the set filming by Feb. 14. He works fast.
Q: I hear you are a Connecticut gal. Good times?
A: It was great. I was born in Hartford and lived there until I was 12 and then we moved to South Windsor where I did middle school and most of high school. My Uncle John was one of the first black fire chiefs in Hartford and my dad, Thomas, was director of public works. My mom was one of the first black principals at Washington Elementary School. And I have to say something about Artists Collective. It is where I took my very first drama, tap and voice lessons. My creative spirit was born in Hartford. I still have a lot of family in the Hartford area so I visit often.
A: I do remember a place on Main Street, I think it was called Hal’s Diner. And I remember it because the family would all go there for breakfast on Saturdays. We knew we would all run into each other there. Hal’s had the best pancakes but I hated the pancake syrup because it was real syrup, not sweet like the bottled stuff.
Q: In your new series, you play Linda, the mother of a son and daughter of diner owner Hattie, played by Patrice Lovely. How are you and Linda similar?
A: I love the fact that one of the first descriptions in the script was that Linda was beautiful. Who doesn’t want to be cast as “beautiful?” Actually, who Linda is changed a bit after I was cast. Now she is younger than originally planned and her son Danny isn’t 30 anymore. He is fresh out of college and looking for a job. There are so many “best” parts to this role. I so wanted to work with Mr. Perry and always wanted to be a regular on a TV series. And I wanted to meet Oprah and now it is all happening at once. And I am part of history. This is the first sitcom on her network and one of the first two projects that were a collaboration between Mr. Perry and Oprah.
Q: Have you met Oprah?
A: I have and she was great. She surprised us all by showing up on the set one day. She is very warm and very down to earth. She felt very familiar.
Q: I know you have many other interests and talents including empowerment editor for PLUS Model magazine. As the battle continues over skinny vs. not so skinny, weigh in on the Abercrombie Fitch firestorm.
A: As far as Abercrombie, from an economic standpoint, it is not a very smart business move and publicity wise, not very bright. If they are all about the smart cool hip folks and had done their homework, they would have realized they are missing out on some great profit. Unfortunately that is why our magazine has been trying to lead a movement to help society kind of shift what has been a traditional view of what beautiful is. I don’t know if we are ever going to get beyond the super-skinny thing, I hope so. I’d like to think society is progressive enough to get there. On a positive note, l live in Los Angeles where most of the time I would audition was because the script called for a plus-size woman. But this time, there was no mention of body style but rather characteristics for the role. I wasn’t chosen because I was the best plus-size actor but because I was the best for the role.
Q: When you visit the Hartford area, what is your one “must stop?”
A: The Jamaican bakery on Main Street. It is a staple of my youth. My grandmother used to live on Tower Street and we were always at the bakery. When I fly back to the coast, I have to stop for chicken and beef patties and coco bread. It is non-negotiable.
Q: What are the nicest and naughtiest things you did while living here?
A: The nicest would be my fondest memories of Thanksgiving at Shiloh Baptist Church and helping to serve dinner to those in need. We would put on the TV so the men could watch the football games. It was a wonderful holiday tradition for us. The naughtiest? Oh, Jesus. When I lived in South Windsor, the school had Project Concern students, students of color from Hartford who would be bused to our school and then be taken back to Hartford at the end of the day. I wanted to go into Hartford and I wasn’t supposed to be on those buses but because of my color I just walked on and no one said anything. I was maybe 14. I ended up getting stranded in Hartford and my mother was looking everywhere for me.
Q: If you were producing a show about Hartford what would you call it?
A: “Hartbeat” and the story line would be centered on family.