Promoting diversity in the arts has become a mainstream mantra in the entertainment industry since the first #OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2015, but it’s something Sheila Johnson has been doing her entire adult life.
It’s been 41 years since the Salamander Hotels & Resorts owner and CEO co-founded the BET network with then-husband Robert Johnson, creating a national platform for African-American music videos, television shows and movies at a time when they were often excluded from the airwaves.
Now the 72-year-old hotel industry mogul and part-owner of three professional sports franchises in Washington – the Wizards, the Mystics and the Capitals - is celebrating the Black-American experience on stage, as a financial backer and ambassador for “Grace,” a new musical created by acclaimed composer and playwright Nolan Williams Jr. and executive producer Dale A. Mott.
Johnson, who declined to say how much she invested, says “Grace” pays homage to Black culinary history as well as Black women entrepreneurship -— two central themes in her own life — while telling the tale of an African-American family in Philadelphia debating what to do with its century-old restaurant following the death of the family matriarch.
“If you listen to the music, it makes you cry,” Johnson said of “Grace” during a recent CNN Business interview. “This is like pulling it all together so people can see the importance of promoting our African-American chefs, just really listening to all of this talent. I’m just so proud to be a supporter.”
Johnson and celebrity chef Carla Hall are just two of a dozen early investors for “Grace.” In August, some of the cast will perform one of the play’s musical numbers during a “Family Reunion” event promoting diversity in the hospitality industry at Johnson’s Forbes five star-rated, 340-acre Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia — one of her company’s five luxury resorts in the United States and Jamaica.
The full musical is set to debut at a Washington area theater in the spring of 2022, and Johnson said she hopes the play will eventually reach Broadway.
“We have got to send a message about diversifying Broadway,” she said. “We’ve got to support Black theater. There’s just a lack of representation there.”
Johnson and her ex-husband completed their sale of BET to Viacom in 2001 for an estimated $3 billion in total compensation, making her the nation’s first Black woman billionaire. The couple divorced in 2002. While Johnson understands the historical significance of her net worth, she doesn’t like to dwell on it.
“People cannot be defined by their bottom-line, their bank balance,” she said. “I think that is wrong and I really want to get away from that. There are a lot of billionaires, multi-billionaires, trillionaires, but it’s what they do with their lives and how they give back to the community [that matters].”
It’s that worldview that helped Johnson navigate her luxury hotel company and sports teams through the worst of the pandemic, when Covid-19 and related government shutdowns and mandates decimated both industries’ revenue streams.
Initially, Johnson’s management team furloughed some hotel staff members, but she tried to make the best of a bad situation after returning to her Salamander location in Middleburg to find the main entrance had been padlocked by management during its temporary closure early last spring.