Tickets: 651.291.7005

Posts Tagged Imani Vaughn-Jones

Imani Vaughn-Jones, A Woman Who Acts

In Park Square’s production of A Raisin in the Sun, Imani Vaughn-Jones plays the spirited and outspoken Beneatha, the middle child and only daughter in the Younger family. Here is Imani to tell us about her role and share a bit about herself: 

I was just reading aloud one of author Grace Lin’s books to my daughter, where a character points out the difference between making resolutions and wishes. The former actively empowers one to do something to reach a goal (“I am going to start a magazine.”); whereas, the latter suggests a passive wait for fulfillment from an external source (“I wish for a million dollars.”). That made me think of Beneatha and you. What went through your mind when you were offered the role of Beneatha?

First of all, I could not believe I was offered the role of Beneatha. I believe I had great auditions, but I felt strange after my final callback and remembered going home that day thinking, “Well, I didn’t get that. And that’s okay.” So my initial response to being offered the role was disbelief. My next response was “Here we go.”

A Raisin in the Sun is such an important show to me. It was the first play I read where I saw my life and my family reflected on the page. The characters said things I’d heard my own family say all my life. The first time I read this play, it felt like home.

As soon as I realized that I was being given the privilege to bring such an important piece of art to life, I was in go mode. I knew that we had a short rehearsal process so preparedness was going to be essential to make everything run smoothly. We had two weeks to put a family together so I did as much as I could beforehand to make sure that our process was as smooth as possible.


Imani Vaughn-Jones as Beneatha
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What is most challenging about playing Beneatha?

Beneatha is so young. It’s funny for me to say that because we’re so close in age; but when it comes to life experience and maturity, there is an age gap between us.

Twenty is such a freaking confusing age! You’re an adult becoming. If you reflect ten years back, you have memories about the thick of your childhood. When you look ten years into the future, you’re a full-fledged adult. There is so much discovery and coming into one’s own that happens at 20.

A big challenge of Beneatha has been playing with that gray area of adulthood that is your 20’s. Honoring her womanhood and her strength, but also playing with her youth, her naiveté and her insecurities as she navigates what the world currently is but also what it could be.


What led you to become an actor, and what has that journey been like?

I’ve always been a creative. When I was child, I always knew that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. Back then, I didn’t know what kind of art; I just knew that I wanted to make art for a living. I acted all through middle school and high school, and I loved it; but I don’t think I really understood the sheer power of the arts.

Imani Vaughn-Jones as Beneatha and Darius Dotch as Walter Lee
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

It was when I was a junior in high school that I realized I actually had to do this for a living. I was in a production of A Piece of My Heart, a show about five women overseas in the Vietnam war. I had also just been rejected from a performing arts high school I’d applied to for my senior year. I was heartbroken and shaken about my capabilities, but the show had to go on.

On opening night, we had so many veterans in the audience. The show ends with the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; and from the stage, we could all hear the audience weeping along with us. After the show, while thanking audience members in the lobby, an elderly woman came up to me and shook my hand. She told me that her husband had left for Vietnam and never made it back. She wanted to thank me for putting his story on stage and giving her a little bit of insight into what he was going through over there.

I wept like a baby that night. Her words, along with the words of so many other veterans and families of veterans who saw that show, have always stuck with me. That was the night I realized I wasn’t just “playing pretend.” I could actually change lives with acting. I could mend hearts, give closure or at least just provide an escape. There was no longer any question. I had to be an actor.

From there, it’s been a fairly direct upshot. When I set a goal, the only thing that can keep me from achieving it is either my depression or the Devil himself. Personally, I’m convinced they’re one and the same.

I decided that my future included training with the Guthrie and the U, so that’s the only school where I applied and auditioned. I got in, I got what I needed, and I jumped head first into the Twin Cities theatre community. This is what I’m meant to do, and I’ll keep doing it until I no longer feel that’s true.


4. Why did you decide to leave the University of Minnesota/Guthrie theatre program?

This question has a deeply layered answer; and if I answer it in full, we will be here for quite some time. So for the sake of length, I’ll give one major reason: The way we currently categorize theatre is outdated. What I didn’t realize when I signed up for a classical actor training program was that “classical” is synonymous with “white,” and most of the time, “male.” I think we need to seriously reconsider what we label “classics.” Who wrote them and, more importantly, who said they were the gold standard? As it currently stands, theatre and European art history are basically synonymous; and that’s just incorrect. I believe that we need to very seriously reassess what we call the classical canon.

To me, Raisin is a classic. Playwrights like August Wilson and Suzan Lori-Parks are champions and bricklayers in American theater, yet so many people still don’t know their names or can’t name more than one play by each. I became disenchanted with studying a system that I believe needs serious renovation. So I left.


5. You are the Founder and Editor in Chief of the digital magazine Super Dope&Extra Lit. Can you tell me how it all got started or anything else you’re willing to share?

Oh, sweet SDEL. Super Dope&Extra Lit was something I wanted to do for a while. This actually relates to what you mentioned in your first question: the difference between resolutions and wishes.

I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world, and I’ve always wanted to empower people of color. That’s always been my wish. My life’s work has been figuring out how I was going to do that. SDEL ended up being the answer.

I wanted a new medium for people of color. I grew up reading Ebony and JET, and I loved them. Unfortunately, today they’re outdated. I wanted to create the next generation of those magazines but with an unapologetic tone. As much as I love our predecessors, they had an air of assimilationism to them. SDEL lacks that completely. There is no attempt to censor ourselves so that we’re more palatable to the mainstream. SDEL manages to be both raunchy and educated, and that’s what I love about it.

I crowdfunded some money, spent a lot of my own and grabbed some friends who shared the vision. Within two months, we had launched something that very quickly became a wave.

I think that’s so important. The balance of wishes and resolutions. They need each other. Your wishes need resolutions behind them in order to make them come true. Your resolutions must be motivated by wishes; otherwise, you have nothing you’re working towards. I really do think they’re equals.

When you think about your future, you should be able to answer how you’re going to achieve it. On the same hand, when you look at what you’re doing, you should know what you’re doing it for. Wishes without action are nothing but dreams. Action without passion is aimless. They need each other. And funny enough, I think that’s something that this play explores a lot.


Learn more about Super Dope& Extra Lit here.

Tickets and information for A Raisin in the Sun here.

Cynthia Jones-Taylor Returns to the Park Square Stage

We welcome Cynthia Jones-Taylor back to Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage, where she played Dotty, a widowed grandmother in present day Philly in our recent holiday production of DOT.  She now returns to play Lena, a widowed grandmother in 1950s Chicago in A Raisin in the Sun.

What has it been like to play the family matriarch in a black family during two different time periods?

It’s very strange. The contrasts are as extreme as the similarities. Dot was married to a doctor, relatively educated, articulate and a strong component in the community that she lived in. She raised her children to be lawyers and writers, lived a life of relative leisure and believed that they could have anything.

L to R: Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Lena and Ivory Doublette as Ruth in a rehearsal
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Lena (Mama) was raised by sharecroppers and first-generation free slaves. She wasn’t educated, worked as a domestic and could only in her wildest dreams imagine the life that Dotty lived. But their love for their dearly departed husbands and their children is almost identical, and it transcends eco/social/temporal  boundaries.

As far as drawing on experiences to inform the characters, I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s so Lena and the younger family of Raisin in the Sun are a little closer to my sensibilites. I was raised in Seattle, and we didn’t have the poverty that the Youngers had; but our family values were similar. My mother was a widowed grandmother, and she was a registered nurse working at a hospital so she was educated; but we were living in a time when we couldn’t live across the “red line” that existed (that’s the invisible line that separated neighborhoods and color). It was difficult.

We were the first black family to move in on our block. My mother had taken care of the former owner’s sister when she was in the hospital. They fell in love with her, her personality and her compassion and offered to sell the house to her before they moved back to Sweden. When we moved in, the neighborhood rejected us. They would call their children in when my brothers,  sisters and I would come out to play. They didn’t invite us to any of the gatherings; they treated us as though we didn’t exist at all. Our house was one of the most beautiful on the block, well-maintained with a manicured lawn; and my mother painstakingly orchestrated the six of us to keep it that way. But our arrival triggered white flight.


L to R: Imani Vaughn-Jones as Beneatha, Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Lena and Calvin Zimmerman as Travis in a rehearsal
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What most resonates with you about Lena?

Her strength and her capacity for love and forgiveness. The pureness of  her heart and her wisdom. She has what the old South referred to as “Mother Wit,” an ability to simply recognize a situation for what it is.


What has been your prior relationship to A Raisin in the Sun?

Well, I have played Ruth in two professional productions, used a Beneatha monologue in school many, many…many….maaanny years ago, and now I have finally aged into playing Lena. I don’t know of many plays around that can offer an actress like me the opportunity to cover three generations in three completely different characters. It is a rare and wonderful thing!


Do you recall your first-time-ever response to it? 

I vividly recall the first time I saw the movie starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands. I must have been about 11 years old when it finally made it to television in the 1970s. The whole family and invited friends gathered around the living room. It was such an event!!!  A movie about African Americans….starring African Americans…. written by an African American…WOMAN!!!!! ON TELEVISION!!! OMG!!! Now you must bear in mind the scarcity of something like this on television at that time. It was rare that we saw ourselves portrayed anywhere in starring fashion. I cried and laughed and dreamt right along with the Youngers. I must have seen it ten times since then, and it still moves me. It is an American masterpiece, and I feel blessed to have this opportunity.


Tickets and information here.


Theatre News for you!

Sign up to get the latest Park Square news