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Johnson-Weiss stays busy with concerts, charities, teaching; she sees a lot of symbolism in 'Dreamgirls' with her own busy life

COURTESY: PAUL FARDIG - 'Dreamgirls' stars are (from left) Julianne Johnson-Weiss, Shahayla Ononaiye and Kristin Robinson. Johnson-Weiss says it's a musical that 'really rings home' because of her character's questioning whether to 'be a part of a family rather than worry about her own career.'Julianne Johnson-Weiss might be the hardest-working woman in show business, Portland-style.

If she's not supporting a charity, she's working with Stumptown Stages or singing in concerts or teaching at Portland Community College. Johnson-Weiss is one of the names synonymous with activities in Portland.

"I try my best," she says, with a chuckle. "I come from a family of people who are always involved, and they definitely want to give back. When you figure out how to do charitable work and stuff you love that honors the degrees you got, it doesn't leave much time. You have to enjoy it."

This month Johnson-Weiss celebrates a 10-year milestone — it's been a decade since she last performed in "Dreamgirls," a musical that follows a Motown group's ascension from obscurity to superstardom. Through gospel, R&B, smooth pop, disco and more, "Dreamgirls" explores themes of ambition, hope and betrayal, all set in the glamorous and competitive world of the entertainment industry.

"The story really rings home," says Johnson-Weiss, who plays a member of the group, Effie Melody White. "Any performer who has been doing it for a long time, or has family or a cache of people they work with, as the music industry evolves it evolves away from that group of people.

"It's painful. You have to recalibrate yourself, your performances and who you trust. Like the musical does, you find people who truly love you and understand you and you arrive back together, where you can love and be a family again.

"That's why family in this show is so important, it's used as a catalyst to show Effie how you have to change to survive; be a part of a family rather than worry about her own career."

It rings true with the life of Johnson-Weiss, a 1979 graduate of old Adams High School. Not wanting to share her age — as she has to play a young woman in "Dreamgirls" — one can do the math. She has been going strong for a long time.

"(Effie) had been leaning on others to interpret or see who she really was, instead of owning the gift and talent and standing fully in it," she adds. "It's a lesson for all performers, anybody who has ever led a group and how to do it well and how not to do it. ... There has to be a point where you arrive and say to yourself, 'I have to make specific choices that are totally about myself. We're loyal and loving people who want to give, but always there'll be a time this will be better for where I'm headed.' "

Johnson-Weiss paved her own path. After Adams High, she went on to earn an undergraduate degree at the University of Portland (continuing a string of straight-A grades), and also took classes at the University of Washington. She has taught theater and music at PCC for 12 years, which came after working in Japan and with Japanese students through Portland State University.

But her charitable work also keeps her busy.

"I lead with my heart and then my head gets involved and goes, 'Wait, schedule!' " she says.

She works with Candlelighters for Children with Cancer, L'Arche Portland, Bridge Meadows, Rotary, Snowman Foundation, Medical Teams International and Salvation Army, among others. She is a constant with Michael Allen Harrison in his Ten Grands events, which benefits the Snowman Foundation, a charity that supports music education.

"I love the Salvation Army so much. You can actually see what the money is going for, and they don't toot their own horn, which is a beautiful way to watch people do charity," Johnson-Weiss says.

Charity work "is a big part of who I am. My grandmother started a lot of clubs for African-American women after the (Vanport) flood. She was a charter member of the NAACP and Urban League. My mother was also involved. I've been watching charitable work being done my whole life."

But Johnson-Weiss loves performing. She sang with the band Swingline Cubs for 19 years. She has worked with Ron Steen, Mel Brown and Joe Millward. She's a Grammy Award-nominated recording artist and songwriter; she has performed on USO tours in Japan, Korea, Monaco, Monte Carlo, Okinawa, Rome and Spain.

Johnson-Weiss started in musical theater in Portland at age 17 at the old Civic Theatre. She has played roles in "Ain't Misbehavin'," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "Little Shop of Horrors." But, she made a conscious decision, urged on by her mother, to do more shows with African-Americans and people of color, "trying to get the door wide open enough so more people can be involved."

As associate artistic director, she has helped Stumptown Stages, a musical theater company, move from the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center to Jefferson High School to the World Trade Center to Portland'5 Centers for the Arts (the Brunish and Winningstad theaters).

"We're very close with all the people who are in Portland'5," she says. "We want to collaborate with them. We try to make it so all are living in that space rather than renting."

For good measure, she also has film and TV show credits.

Johnson-Weiss stays busy. She tells a story of doing performances at a Travel Portland event at Portland'5 and a Gerry Frank tribute at the Hilton Downtown Portland — they both were booked at the same time. She got a driver and, while a drumming act she recruited and announced performed at Portland'5, she skipped over to the Hilton for two songs to honor Frank, and then returned to finish the Portland'5 act.

She laughs about it now — "Do I want to do that all the time? No, but I try to honor what I say I'll do," she says.

She welcomes being busy.

"I do have to say no, but I have large shoulders, broad shoulders," Johnson-Weiss says. "My capacity — I discovered that I have a huge capacity. You're given what you can handle."

"Dreamgirls" stages for 14 performances at Brunish and Winningstad theatres, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Oct. 18-Nov. 4. Tickets: $26-$45, www.stumptownstages.org or www.portland5.com.


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