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The Tony nominee on her tour-de-force turn in Jonah
Gabby Beans never leaves the stage in Jonah, Rachel Bonds' world-premiere play about a writer named Ana processing sexual trauma and desire. During the show's 100 intermissionless minutes, she ages from insecure adolescent to aloof adult and has uncomfortably intimate interactions with three different men. Beans recalls that when she first read the script she was "moved to tears and I didn't really understand why. Rachel's writing is so robust and specific and so deep, but it's not the type of work that announces itself when it comes into the room. It sort of sidles up next to you and before you know it, you're different." She soon found herself "obsessed" with the play yet apprehensive about signing on. Thankfully, her fascination trumped her fear.
Over the past five years, Beans—who double majored in theatre and neuroscience at Columbia University and earned her master's at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art—has been stealing scenes all over New York stages. She earned a Tony nomination for her dazzling Broadway debut in Lincoln Center Theater's 2022 revival of The Skin of Our Teeth as a shrewd, fourth-wall breaking housemaid, and she's given memorable performances in Atlantic Theater Company's Anatomy of a Suicide and I'm Revolting. But Jonah, currently running at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, demands even more from her. "I have never been asked to show up in this way onstage before," she says. Despite its title, the play is all about Ana.
Throughout Jonah, as Ana navigates relationships with wildly disparate men, she develops different versions of herself. A self-described Army brat, Beans understands firsthand the "adaptability" of someone who's forced to start over again and again. "When you move around a lot as a kid, you learn very quickly how to get what you need and how to move through social situations minimizing friction," she explains. That feeling of connection to the character, as well as a meeting with the show's "smart and amazing" director Danya Taymor (Pass Over, Heroes of the Fourth Turning), convinced Beans that the play was "a challenge that I needed to run toward instead of run away from."
Beans is always an incandescent presence onstage. That quality is magnified in Jonah, where she's the only woman in the four-person cast; the other three actors all present as white and male (though one is Latine and uses they/them pronouns). That gender imbalance is central to the play's themes, but the racial contrast—Beans is Black—was not by design. "It's not part of the script," Beans says, though it became part of her performance with Bonds' and Taymor's blessing. "We spoke specifically about what it means for me to be a Black woman onstage, going through these intense moments with three white men. Because of my upbringing—I grew up in predominantly white spaces—this is real for me." From her teen years on an Army base in Germany to her coming of age at Columbia, she understands the "fraught, complicated dynamics that come up" when someone who doesn't fit the mold arrives. "So, it became part of our artistic vision as I experienced it."
For Jonah and Beans to have maximum impact, it's best to go in knowing as little as possible. Seemingly, theatregoers are coming in ignorant because as the play's mysteries are revealed Beans is acutely aware of the audiences' reactions—particularly their silence. "There's a vibe in the theatre that I've never experienced as a spectator or as a performer," she says. It's a sign that the gamble she made on this project is paying off. (The rave reviews are, too.)
After the show completes its run, Beans plans to concentrate on her other passion, writing, as she "furiously edits" one screenplay and preps another for production. But right now, Ana is her sole focus. "My only priority in this process is to facilitate the healing that I believe Rachel's writing can provide."
Jonah is also frequently at our TKTS Discount Booths.