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Posts Tagged Suzan-Lori Parks

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.

What’s That Got To Do With Jamil Jude?

Jamil Jude
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Last month, I attended a friend’s graduation at the University of Minnesota. Only two years before, I’d read her application essay explaining her motivation to pursue a Master’s in Public Affairs, despite her already heavy load of a full-time job and parenting as well as the economic and time sacrifices for the family. What drove her all boiled down to a personal value instilled in her by her father: “Always leave it better.”

Today I was involved in a brief discussion about the concept of transformational leadership with the sisters and consociates of the Order of St. Joseph of the Carondelet in St. Paul. Such leaders are change makers; they inspire, motivate and empower followers toward making lasting change through a common vision, and they do so by changing expectations, perceptions and motivations. Unlike traditional transactional leaders who are more concerned with processes and foster compliance through rewards and punishment, transformational leaders challenge the status quo to build a personally and collectively meaningful and productive environment for the common good. The transactional style is less apt to make lasting change, though effective in getting specific projects or tasks done and in dealing with crisis and emergencies

Recently I saw Full Circle Theater Company’s 365 Days/plays by Suzan-Lori Parks: A 2017 Remix. This is a company that I’ve been following since it fell under my radar last year when I saw its inaugural production, Theater: A Sacred Passage. It is a forward-looking multiracial, multicultural and multigenerational company that “artfully addresses issues of human nature and social justice for 21st century audiences.” Led by five highly experienced theatre professionals (Rick Shiomi, co-founder and former artistic director of Mu Performing Arts; Martha B. Johnson, co-founder of Mu Performing Arts; James A. Williams, co-founder of Penumbra Theatre; Lara Trujillo, seasoned vocalist, actor and music educator; and Stephanie Lein Walseth, longtime theatre scholar, artist, educator and administrator), this company does the hard work of “walking the talk” in its commitment to intentional diversity that will impact the Twin Cities theatre community of artists and audience well into the future.

What do any of these seemingly random reflections have to do with Jamil Jude, Park Square Theatre’s Artistic Programming Associate since December 2015? Well, everything.

Find out more in an upcoming post about Jamil!

Going Full Circle and Beyond

The circle is a universal symbol of unity, wholeness, inclusivity and cyclical movement. During both the first rehearsal and opening night of Flower Drum Song at Park Square Theatre, members of Mu Performing Arts reflected on how Mu itself has come full circle on its 25th anniversary. Its once newest core performers, such as Randy Reyes, Sherwin Resurreccion, Katie Bradley and Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, are now the elders as another generation of artists stream through. In fact, when Mu first staged Flower Drum Song about eight years ago, Sherwin had played the young man Ta and Randy his father, Wang. And just four years ago, Randy Reyes inherited the Artistic Director role from co-founder Rick Shiomi, who has since co-found a new company called Full Circle Theater.

First rehearsal of Flower Drum Song (Photo by T. T. Cheng)

First rehearsal of Flower Drum Song
(Photo by T. T. Cheng)

Recently I asked Rick Shiomi to go back down memory lane to Mu’s beginnings, then return us to where it is now and, in conjunction, where he is now. My first surprise on this journey was that then University of Minnesota graduate student Dong-il Lee, not Rick, had initiated the founding of Theater Mu (the organization’s original name).

“I actually came here from Canada for personal reasons,” Rick admitted, “and I didn’t think it was even possible to do. I only knew one or two Asian Americans acting in the Twin Cities. I thought it would be too monumental a task.” Yet Rick agreed to go along for the ride.

However, Dong-il graduated within a year and moved to the East coast for a teaching position and, later, back to South Korea. Rick suddenly found himself heading Mu as interim, and ultimately permanent, Artistic Director.  But why didn’t he just stop then and go on with his life?

“By now, I saw that my future would be in the Twin Cities,” Rick said. “I had already committed my life to Asian American theater, and there was nothing here. I could certainly have worked with another theater, like Mixed Blood, that would do maybe one Asian American play in five years. I preferred to put in the hard work to develop Mu instead.”

The work was, indeed, hard. Rick compared the first five to ten years to “digging trenches to lay a foundation.” People came and went as Mu gradually built its first major wave of core performers to take it to the next level. In its 2003/4 season, Mu reached a new high with an all-Asian American casting of the Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures at Park Square Theatre, followed in 2005/6 with its landmark production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were exciting times for Mu.

In Rick’s opinion, “Mu has completed one cycle and is now starting on another, almost like a spiral. There is a certain circular sensation, especially for the actors who have grown up and now play the elders, but it’s a different place and time and their roles have changed.”

Rick, too, has let go of a cycle to begin a new one. He and four other longtime stalwarts of the Twin Cities theater community–Martha B. Johnson, James A. Williams, Lara Trujillo and Stephanie Lein Walseth–founded Full Circle Theater in 2013. By doing so, they are going full circle in the sense of experiencing and implementing some of the same growth challenges and strategies faced by any startup, such as Mu in its younger days. However, this time around, they have all been “around the block” with collective knowledge to their advantage as well as a focus beyond Asian American theater. Listed as one of Full Circle’s core values is theater that “is multiracial and multicultural in its representation of life.”

Full Circle’s upcoming production, 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks: A 2017 Remix, will run at the Penumbra Theatre from May 26 to June 11. It will feature 46 of a collection of 365 plays written by Parks in 2002 (one play per day). In its 2007 premiere, 365 Days/365 Plays was lauded as “a national phenomenon….crossing ethnic, racial and economic boundaries.” Flower Drum Song patrons can take advantage of Full Circle’s special offer of $10 tickets by inputting the code FDS at brownpapertickets.com.

With regard to Flower Drum Song, Rick has strong memories of the powerful scene, in Mu’s earlier staging at the Ordway, between Ta and Linda Low–then played by Sherwin Resurreccion and Laurine Price, respectively–when she leaves to make it big in Hollywood. He also recalls the emotional father-son reconciliation dance between Randy and Sherwin as Wang and Ta. Another high point came when Sara Ochs, as Mei-Li, so movingly sang “Love, Look Away.”

“What were you feeling and thinking,” I asked, “as you watched Flower Drum Song to commemorate Mu’s 25th anniversary?”

“What a great evolution/revolution all of us have created!” Rick replied. “I felt great pride in the work of our veterans Sherwin and Katie, leading the cast, and Randy leading the company. And excited by the new talent coming!”

 

Martha B. Johnson, Rick Shiomi, David Henry Hwang and Stephanie Bertumen at opening night for Flower Drum Song (Photo by Connie Shaver)

Martha B. Johnson, Rick Shiomi, David Henry Hwang and Stephanie Bertumen at opening night of Flower Drum Song
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

 

Flower Drum Song – Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage until February 19

 

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