Last July, Nubia Monks stood outside the Guthrie Theater, grieving the death of the woman who raised her, and vowed she'd act there in a role both women loved — Beneatha, in "A Raisin in the Sun." Starting with Wednesday's preview performance, she is doing just that.
Monks first came to the Guthrie four years ago to be part of the Guthrie Experience training program. That closely followed the death of the woman she refers to as her mother, grandmother Reeree (short for Annie Marie Hawk). She raised Monks and her six siblings after they were taken from parents who struggled with addiction. After that program, Monks worked around the country, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But she returned to the Guthrie July 8 for an encounter she described in a social media post.
"I hadn't even gotten an audition for the Guthrie yet! Didn't even know when or if I'd even get invited to audition!!! Chile!!!!! Tell me why DAYS LATER I got invited to audition for A RAISIN IN THE SUN & then weeks later, got the offer to play Beneatha!!! But wait … it gets even DEEPER!!!!
4 years ago, my Reeree passed and I practically RAN AWAY to Minneapolis to escape the reality of my mother passing. Guess where I escaped to? THE GUTHRIE! Guess the first and only show my Reeree ever came to see me do? A RAISIN IN THE SUN in high school! And as who?? BENEATHA!!! So imagine how hard I cried when I got invited to play Beneatha in RAISIN at the same place I escaped to to numb the pain… because guess who's getting a second chance at healing? ME! Guess who's gonna dedicate every single performance to her Reeree? ME! Guess who manifested this and GOT IT? ME!!!!!!! This is Divine!"
Monks' journey to the stage began when she was 14, in Inglewood, Calif., south of Los Angeles. A freshman at Washington Preparatory High School, she was "having a little bit of a crisis."
"I didn't want to be like my parents," Monks recalled. "I stumbled onto that audition room and you had to have a monologue prepared but I didn't. I didn't even know what to call it. So I said I didn't have a 'paragraph' for them and I just told my life story. The director, who's still a mentor, saw something in me, something in my life story."
Fourteen years later, he still recalls that moment.
"I remember her coming into that room like, 'This is my part. It's time to show all these seniors I'm here,' " said Brandon Rainey, Monks' teacher, who plans to be at the Guthrie for the Jan. 14 opening. "She was very shy and she had a lot of self-doubt if she should even do theater. But once she came into that room, she went all in."
As soon as Monks started rehearsing the role of Beneatha, she says it felt right: "She had a confidence I did not. It was easy for me not to judge her because I wanted to be her."
The drama is set when Beneatha's family, the Youngers, are trying to purchase a home in a white Chicago neighborhood. Beneatha, who wants to be a doctor and is a stand-in for playwright Lorraine Hansberry, is one of several characters encompassed by the Langston Hughes line that inspired the play's title, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"
Monks came to believe not only in entertaining audiences but changing their lives, like "Raisin" changed hers. And her grandmother's.
"There is a scene where Beneatha gets slapped, early in the play. When it happened on stage, the audience went quiet, the whole room. You could hear a pin drop and then my grandmother screamed, 'Slap her back!' " Monks remembered. "She was blown away by the whole experience of seeing her granddaughter doing theater. And she could relate to the story."
Like Beneatha's family, Monks' grandmother left the South to pursue the dream of owning a home. Monks' grandparents raised her and her brothers and sisters in a two-bedroom house. Like the play's Lena, Reeree anchored her family.
Although Reeree was wary of late-night rehearsals, she and Monks saw theater as a way out of poverty and the kind of violence Monks experienced during a subsequent play, James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner." While Monks and a friend were returning home from opening night, their car was shot at. Hit by bullets in the hand and back of her head, she spent the rest of the run in a hospital.
When the actor — who was also in Ten Thousand Things' "The Comedy of Errors" — auditioned for the Guthrie's "Raisin" last August, director Austene Van's reaction was as instantaneous as Rainey's.
"I didn't know her. I didn't even know she lived here but I saw her audition and thought, 'Where is this wonderful person from? Heaven?' " said Van. "She was embodying everything I thought Beneatha should be."
Monks calls Van "a magical ball of joy and love."
"To be in a space with a Black female director, I'm constantly pinching myself," Monks said. "I told her the other day, 'You make me believe I can direct.' Then she let me sit next to her, in the assistant director's chair, and handed me a pile of sticky notes and said, 'Just watch. And tell me what you see.' "
"It's all about giving people the tools to be theatermakers," said Van. "At least try that dream on for size!"
Both women say it's powerful to be rehearsing "Raisin" now, not just because it's a vibrant work by a woman whose face is etched on the side of the Guthrie but also because the 1959 drama remains urgent.
"When you remount something, you always start at zero," said Van, who staged "Raisin" for Lyric Arts Theatre in 2019. "You're always discovering something."
Monks said it's the same play she did in high school (and in grad school, as Lena) but it's even more powerful now.
"Especially in Minneapolis, still feeling the effects of redlining and gentrification, this play — with this family and this American dream that actually was very exclusive and not designed for them — is so potent. They are trying to grab that dream and that's what my community is trying to do, too," said Monks, a current Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights' Center.
Beneatha gets laughed at when she describes her dream of being a doctor. Monks knows she was fortunate to find people who didn't laugh at her dream.
One of them, her grandmother, only saw her act the role once. But Monks says Reeree will be on stage with her at every performance of "Raisin," sharing the dream that Monks has not had to defer.
'A Raisin in the Sun'
Who: By Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Austene Van.
When: 7:30 Wed.-Sat., 1 and 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 12.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Protocol: Proof of vaccination or PCR negative test within 72 hours of show. Secure masks required. No bandanas, gaiters or face shields. (The first three previews, Jan. 8-11, were canceled because of COVID cases and protocols.)
Tickets: $15-$80, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.