Dynamic actress, anointed life coach, fantastic fitness guru and phenomenal woman: These are just a few things that describe A.J. Johnson, who was recently given the name Akua Okyerebea while in Ghana.
Born Adrienne-Joi Johnson in Orange, New Jersey, A.J. is one of very few actresses that have managed to stay relevant in Hollywood over the years. She plays Stephanie, a publicist and best friend to seemingly perfect couple Candace and Luvell in new series Stuck with You. Johnson said the series, which is written, directed and produced by Patricia Cuffie-Jones, was something she didn’t have to think twice about. When Jones, who she considers to be a close friend and prayer warrior, told her she had a role in mind for her, her response was, “Just tell me what I’m doing.”
The show is centered around a celebrity couple whose relationship seems blissful to fans, but is falling apart from lies and manipulation. Candace and Luvell are faced with the decision to either work out their kinks or walk away from their relationship.
“For me as an actress, I love that I’m in that place and space in my life where I’ve prayed to be able to work with the people I love and know, do great characters, do great storylines and actually partner in whatever way God says partner,” Johnson said. “She and I partnered to bring this particular character and story together.”
An actress for over 30 years, Johnson has been able to find the authenticity in the characters she’s played in order to help her execute her memorable roles. While many of us view Johnson as an icon that has played Juanita in popular film Baby Boy and Sharane in House Party (to name a few), she still doesn’t see herself as a legend and she has yet to play her dream role.
“I don’t see myself like that… It doesn’t feel like its me, because I’m too busy living,” she said. “I’m so overwhelmingly flattered and humbled. I feel like God continues to grow me and stretch me, so there’s no way that I’ve done it yet.”
Johnson revealed the one of the last parts of Baby Boy where Juanita talks to Jody in her garden was originally a “throw-away” scene. Considering the dialogue in the scene, she felt it was much more and showed John Singleton the same through her acting.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen, but being authentically in that emotional space, I started crying as I was talking to Jody, and John was like, ‘We’re done,’” she said. The late John Singleton told her that she was the only one that could have done that in one take.
“In Baby Boy, the authentic side of me was the curious, unknowing spirit in me. At first, I was trying to bring the Delta from Spelman to the role, and John Singleton, rest his soul, was like, ‘No, she has no place in this,’” she recalled. “’We need this young, inexperienced girl who just happens to be a mom trying to navigate life and motherhood alongside her son, and that takes a lot of unknowing. That takes a lot of discovery in real-time, so I want to see that wonderment in your eyes.'”
Noting that House Party was released in theaters 30 years ago and Baby Boy graced the screen 20 years ago, she feels like the impact that both of those films have had is a dream come true, but her ideal role is to be a superhero or to play in a film involving lots of action.
When asked what it was like to take her talents to the motherland, A.J. said it was a blessing of a lifetime that she initially thought would just be a birthday turn-up and vacation.
“It was God’s assignment to choose me to go back,” she said. “Even when I arrived, the kings and queens grabbed me and said, ‘Welcome home, queen. You’re royalty, but you just don’t know it from being raised in America.’ And they even said, ‘You think you chose to come. You were chosen. There’s work for you to do here. That’s why you’re back.’”
Throughout 2019, A.J. said she went back eight more times and built relationships with the board of tourism and president’s office. Now that 2020 is considered to be the year of “Beyond the Return,” Johnson has partnered with the U.S. embassy in Ghana through her organization, the Bridge to Better.
When asked how she received her African name Akua Okyerebea, she explained that she was born on a Wednesday and in West Africa, people are named based on the day they enter the universe. Her last name was given to her based on the tribe she’s affiliated with. Since she’s been renamed, A.J. has made it a point to walk in the power of her name.
While Johnson is extremely serious about health and wellness, something that intensified that passion was the loss of her mother to cancer. Johnson said she was a freshman at Spelman College for two months before she got a call saying her mother had passed away. She had no idea her mother was even sick.
“It’s interesting how I feel like my life has been more so shaped by death, because right before hers, my high school boyfriend was killed in a car accident,” she revealed. “It continued to happen with friends and cousins, so I think a lot of what you see in me is because I’ve had to navigate life losing so many people that I love. A lot people never survive the death of a parent or the death of a boyfriend, but I just felt like there was a calling on my life that I was supposed to be an example of surviving those things.”
Johnson said the desire to seek knowledge associated with health and fitness came from her desire to honor her mother.
“I just decided I wanted to live my best life to honor her, and next thing you know, it turned into people saying, ‘I want to live in that zone,’” she said, revealing that her best friend Tisha Campbell-Martin named her fitness initiative The A.J. Zone.
Johnson also credits much of her success to experiences of being an HBCU graduate and woman of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
“From 17 to 20, those are your formative years, and so to be raised by Spelman and Delta, I don’t apologize for the greater that I reach for on a daily basis. That’s what Delta is,” she said. “I sat in the freshmen orientation meeting when the president of Spelman at the time said, ‘You were chosen out of 10,000 women to be one out of 500, and we are going to personally shape you to be a woman that changes the world.’”
Johnson said she feels those experiences shaped her soul. While she isn’t always able to go to sorority chapter meetings, she is constantly inviting and involving Delta women to aid in causes that are equally as important to the sorority. One of the things that she has done is asked sorors to send workout equipment that they no longer use in order to let those in Ghana use it.
“It’s great to pay dues to the organization, which I think we have to do to keep it going, but I think it’s another thing to live in the space of service,” Johnson said. “I constantly try to do my part within my life. I’m being the Delta that I know I can be.”
While living in the season of overflow as she likes to call it, A.J. said God has allowed her to do a “New Year, New You” workshop in Los Angeles, but she plans to extend a retreat in Ghana.
“I started off sharing it on Instagram, and then everybody was so in love with the concept, they were saying, ‘Do a retreat, do a workshop.’ And so I did that in the past years,” she said. “Now its growing so much, I feel like ‘New Year, New You’ is whenever you have a birthday.”
Fitness and acting are two things A.J. has checked off the list for 2020 and in her life overall, but she said to be sure to look for a familiar face on Love & Hip Hop Miami. She is also working with BET, Vanessa Bell-Calloway, Kim Fields, Tressa Smallwood and others to work on a women’s initiative that involves mental health and breast cancer awareness.
While mentioning women that she loves and can trust in this industry, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Alfre Woodard, Tracey Edmonds, and Oprah Winfrey are people that she mentioned, but her line sisters, Spelman sisters and other sorors are other women she appreciates.
“Their lives went different directions than mine, but our bond happened. When my mother died, they rallied around me. And some friends are not even line sisters. We went to Spelman, and that bond is life-long,” she said. “I’m blessed to have friends in this industry, but also ride-or-dies that knew me before this business, and that’s valuable to me.”
While wrapping up the interview, Johnson gave some valuable advice to people who have suffered with the loss of a parent.
“I feel like I was affected by cancer so early on in my life, that it has been a a part of my whole life,” A.J. said. “My advice is the loss is not your destiny, and it’s easy to think that life is over, because it’s a painful experience, but I believe that the choice has got to be made. What do you now do to live her legacy as opposed to being crippled by her death? I want my sisters to know that God is not a God of limitations. We do that to ourselves. God is not a God of punishment. We do that to ourselves.”
A.J.’s life is a testament to making choices that are well-suitable for her.
“You always have the power within self to make a better choice, but you have to believe that. What you’re watching in me is just me believing I always have the power to make a different better choice,” she said.
Be sure to catch A.J. in series Stuck with You on UMC, and LHHMIA. To keep up with her latest projects, follow @theajzone on Instagram.