Wednesday, June 16, 2010 | 9:59 p.m.
Trina Johnson-Finn with The Family Stone
In retrospect, it would have helped if the Surinamese audience knew what a celebrity impressionist is.
Instead, the 1,500 or so fans in the antiquated Anthony Neste Stadium in Paramaribo, Suriname, did not readily know of this art form. They paid to see Toni Braxton. The real Toni Braxton. Miss Un-Break My Heart herself.
A tribute act? Most Surinamese music fans had never witnessed such a thing.
Therein began a legal odyssey that landed the unwitting Trina Johnson-Finn, who was to perform that tribute to Braxton, in a Surinamese jail for 104 days.
We’ll note now that Johnson-Finn, today, is fine. Still amazed by it all, but feeling OK. A singer of ample dexterity, the 42-year-old Johnson-Finn has performed as a backup vocalist for Barbra Streisand, toured for five years with MC Hammer, and is a current member of the Sly & The Family Stone Band (an officially licensed act that, sadly, lacks Sly Stone).
Johnson-Finn is also a featured vocalist in the history-of-Vegas production “Vegas! The Show” at Saxe Theater at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, which opens at the old Wyrick Theatre space Friday night. Her showcase numbers borrow from Gladys Knight (“Midnight Train to Georgia”) and Tina Turner (“Proud Mary”).
A Las Vegas resident for several years, Johnson-Finn made news in the most unusual and stunning fashion last year when she was arrested after taking the stage in a Braxton tribute show in Suriname, a former South American Dutch colony that sits just north of Brazil.
Officials accused Johnson-Finn of intentionally duping those who paid up to $53 apiece for tickets.
Those who turned up for the show were angry they were not watching Braxton, the former Flamingo headliner and “Dancing With the Stars” also-ran. They were led to believe Braxton herself would appear because slippery concert promoter Angel Ventura, operator of an outfit called Events for Suriname, promoted the show as a Braxton concert.
Johnson-Finn knew something was amiss that night by the time she started her second song, when she noticed looks of scorn on the faces of the fans in the front rows and boos began cascading on the stage. The disapproval was even more evident when fans started pelting the stage with glasses and beer bottles.
“The hair on my neck stood up,” said Johnson-Finn, who had never encountered such an audience, during a phone interview Tuesday night. “I finally stopped the DJ, stopped the music, and said, ‘We’re going to stop the show.’ So we stopped and we left the stadium, and by then the promoter was nowhere to be found.”
Johnson-Finn was turned on to the gig by an agent who booked similar shows around the world. She didn’t sense any particular danger in performing as Braxton in the coastal South American country.
“Just because it’s a foreign country doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate entertainment,” Johnson-Finn said. “It’s not that unusual a venue, but I hadn’t been there before and I didn’t know anyone who had been there before.”
Johnson-Finn and her husband, Raymond Finn, were questioned the next day in the town’s police station, and again were detained at the airport two days after the show. With Ventura pulling his own impression – that of the vanishing David Copperfield – Trina and Raymond were jailed and charged with fraud. Raymond was allowed to leave after two weeks, which was a relief even though by then he’d lost his job as a realtor and would need to sell the family’s assets to pay Trina’s legal fees.
And for 4 ½ months, Johnson-Finn remained incarcerated.
“It was like being locked up in a very poor country, like Jamaica, if you can imagine that,” she said. “It was very nasty, run-down. The toilet was not working (Johnson-Finn used a small metal bucket, which needed to be cleaned regularly), The rooms were just nasty. I had an old bed that was extremely hard. You showered by catching water coming out of the faucet in a bucket and washing down that way.”
Johnson-Finn hired two local attorneys to appear for her court appearances, then hoped her story would unspool internationally. It did. Her case went to trial in May 2009, at which time Ventura – as if by magic! – re-appeared to face authorities.
“They said they found him, but I think he just turned himself in, and had probably paid a lot of people off to avoid taking responsibility for this,” Johnson-Finn said. “I don’t think there was any big manhunt for him. But the press this was generating internationally forced them to take a look at the real evidence, and we had a contract specifically stating I was a tribute act. (Ventura) basically got called out and had to turn himself in.”
In court, Ventura confessed to fraud. He was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison. Johnson-Finn was released and, coincidentally, her one-year anniversary of being set free was June 9, during rehearsals for “Vegas! The Show.”
The whole bizarre episode would make a good movie. Realizing this, Trina and Raymond are working on a documentary film about the experience, as some footage of the region and events were captured on film. She’s also still touring with the Family Stone act, and Saturday the band is part of the “JuneFest” lineup at South Point.
“Well, looking back on it now, it’s a page in your life that you can’t believe actually happened,” the Johnson-Finn said. “You sort of step outside yourself and go, ‘Was that even me?’ But what I experienced was anger and sadness. Going through it was surreal, like, wow, this is really, really crazy. I was living in hell, I’d hit rock bottom. But the flip side is I’ve lived through a very negative thing, and since then I’ve done a lot in my career. I’m in a new show now and I’m as busy as ever.”
It took about a year of healing and a lot of emotional and financial repair work, but Johnson-Finn can now laugh about the Suriname experience.
“I did a Google search on my name and it was like 2 million people had hit on my name,” she said, laughing. “You need to get some serious street cred to do that.”
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.