Singer/comedian Anjelah Johnson brings her "Bon Qui Qui" character to Minglewood Hall on Friday. (Photos courtesy 42 West)
Bon Qui Qui is coming home, though she may not even know it.
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An unexpurgated fast food server turned budding hip-hop star, Bon Qui Qui is the creation of Anjelah Johnson. The comic actress says the character was partially inspired by an outspoken woman she once met at a Memphis Burger King drive-thru. Combining her with qualities from others, including her “ghetto fabulous” brother, Johnson first conceived of Bon Qui Qui, a riff on some of the more outlandish parts of hip hop style and culture, at an audition for the sketch comedy series “MADtv.” When she joined the cast for the show’s 2007 season, Johnson saw her improv riff become a pop culture phenomenon.
Now Johnson is helping Bon Qui Qui’s dreams of music stardom come to fruition with the character’s first ever album, “Gold Plated Dreams,” and an accompanying tour that stops at Memphis’ Minglewood Hall Friday.
“Some people may be confused and think it’s a stand-up show just because they see my name on it, but it’s not a stand-up show. It’s exactly what it says on the ticket,” Johnson says of the show, billed as “Anjelah Johnson presents Bon Qui Qui.”
The show does, in fact, include an opening set of stand-up by Johnson. But then she steps off stage to “check on” Bon Qui Qui and a band, which includes Johnson’s husband Manwell Reyes and, as music director, Memphian Loren “Snoopy” Clark, both of Warner Brothers recording artists Group 1 Crew, takes the stage. They are soon joined by Bon Qui Qui (Johnson in character), who delivers a set of slick, catchy, R&B-styled songs with titles like “I’m a Cut You” and “No Boyfren” that, while comic in tone, have real musical chops behind them and are accompanied by more than credible choreography by Johnson, a former Oakland Raiders cheerleader.
“We’re finding that even the people who are surprised that it’s not a straight stand-up show are like, this was a great show. I wasn’t expecting this, but it was awesome,” says Johnson.
Johnson’s latest turn, like most in her career, was unexpected. Growing up she says she went through a dizzying string of career ambitions.”
“I was always bouncing around to something else,” she says. “I want to do this. Or maybe I’ll be a doctor. Or maybe I’ll be a teacher. But I think in actuality I just wanted to be an actress, so I could all of those things at some point in my life.”
Her first foray into performing came in 2002 when, at the age of 20, she joined the roster of the Raiders’ cheerleading squad. A few years later a friend pushed her toward taking a comedy class at a local church. Two years later she was auditioning for “MADtv” though she had never done sketch comedy before.
“Apparently that’s a habit of mine, trying to do things that I’ve never done before like touring as a musician,” she says.
Johnson only worked one year on “MADtv,” which was cancelled the next season, but she was able to parlay it into a host of other gigs, including roles in the film “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” and the TV show “Ugly Betty.” She also scored stand-up specials on Comedy Central and Netflix. Meanwhile, Bon Qui Qui was taking on a life of her own. The character’s “MADtv” appearances were becoming YouTube sensations, so successful that her creator felt compelled to slip back into her skin.
“I was done with the character after ‘MADtv,’ but my fans still wanted it,” says Johnson. “They would come to my shows dressed as Bon Qui Qui. So it was like, okay, what else can we do with her? And we were like let’s make her a rapper.”
With the help of her musician husband Reyes, Johnson cut a demo for Bon Qui Qui. Videos for tracks such as “I’m a Cut You” went viral, eventually racking up more than three million YouTube views and helping her creator garner more than 100,000 subscribers. The numbers were enough to impress Warner Brothers, which released “Gold Plated Dreams” in January.
Now Bon Qui Qui is hitting the road for the first time. A seasoned performer, Johnson has the comedy and dancing portions of the show well in hand, and though before this she jokes she had never sung outside of her shower, she says that has come surprisingly easy as well. More problematic has been the business side of things — planning and organizing a tour and where to take Bon Qui Qui next.
“We’ve been thinking about what comes next, like is this a Vegas show?,” says Johnson, who has already been approached by producers in Sin City. “It’s sky’s the limit. We had no idea we’d been doing this two or three years ago. If you ask me today if we’re going to have a Bon Qui Qui show on Broadway, maybe.”
But those audiences are in the future. For now Johnson is focused on the one coming in Memphis, one that she hopes includes the woman who inspired Bon Qui Qui.
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“That would be a mazing, but who knows who she is, what her name even is,” Johnson says of the possibility of the real Bon Qui Qui attending the show. “It would awesome, though. She just changed my life, just everything about her.”
Anjelah Johnson presents Bon Qui Qui 8 p.m. Friday Minglewood Hall, 1555 Madison Tickets: $30-$50; available at the box office and online at minglewoodhall.com. For more information, call 901-312-6058.