Cashae Monya, Lorene Chesley in The Bluest Eye
Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy, recently in a highly praised production at Moxie Theatre, has two roles for teenage women. Ernestine, the oldest, tells how she, her father and younger sister moved from Pensacola, Florida, to a basement in Brooklyn in 1950. Her confused, controlling father tried to shelter his girls from life.
“When we decided on Crumbs,” says director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, “we wanted to lock down Cashae for the cast as soon as possible. We all assumed — including Cashae — that she would play the oldest daughter.”
Cashae is Cashae Monya, an SDSU student who will graduate in December with a Bachelor’s Degree in Child and Family Development. She’s also an expressive actor/wiz who can play a 12-year-old without a false note.
Until Crumbs, Monya had been cast in roles far younger than her 23 years. In The Bluest Eye, (Craig Noel Award winner for best production of 2013), Sonnenberg gave Monya the lead, Pecola, and she broke hearts as an African-American girl who has never known love and believes she’ll stay ugly until her eyes turn blue.
It was a breakthrough. But once again Pecola was much younger than Monya.
When auditions began for Crumbs, Sonnenberg called in Monya to read the daughter scenes with the older actors, “for chemistry reasons.”
Vimel Sephus would read as the father. “He had a limited time to audition,” says Sonnenberg, “and the other actor was late.”
Sonnenberg asked Monya to step in and read the part of Lily, a complicated, flamboyant adult: maybe she’s an activist in Harlem, maybe just a mooch; maybe she’s bluffing, or bravery itself, or all of the above plus intangibles. The actor playing Lily must walk on, grab the stage by the throat and shake it silly throughout.
“I never considered Cashae for Lily,” says Sonnenberg. “I thought she was 10 years too young.”
Monya: “When Delicia asked me to read Lily I honestly had not read the whole script – just the sides [Ernestine’s speeches plus cues]. When I read it was completely cold. FROZEN!”
Sonnenberg: “And she read it. Brilliantly.”
Monya: “In hindsight, reading cold was a blessing. It gave me the opportunity to fully commit my instincts and not overthink my choices.”
Sonnenberg: After she read, I thought, ‘why not’? That simple. Why not take an actor who is a grown woman and cast her as an adult? Why not challenge her to do something she hadn’t done yet but was obviously capable of doing?
“After the audition I said I would consider her for Lily, but I don’t think she believed me.”
A week later Sonnenberg told Monya to think about playing Lily. “I doubt she believed me still.” A few days later, Sonnenberg offered the role.
Monya: “First reply: ‘for real?’ Then excited and very grateful. Then panic.” By now she’d read the script many times and found herself drawn to Lily. But when the idea registered: ‘OMG. Am I ready for this?’
“The fear was there – am I REALLY ready for this? — but I had every reason to trust Delicia’s vision and to trust myself.”
Lily isn’t larger than life; she’s about as large as life gets. Instead of tip-toeing in rehearsals, nudging at the wall of the envelope, Monya “blasted into the role. That’s absolutely what’s called for and what I loved about her! What edged in slowly were the intricacies of the relationships, Lily’s pain, and her motives.”
Sonnenberg: “A simple story: actor late for an audition, actor steps in, reads, and walks away with the role.”