Whoa, Nellie!

A new play about Nellie Stone Johnson, badass

in 1996, Kim Hines visited Nellie Stone Johnson, then in her nineties, at her apartment in downtown Minneapolis. It was public housing, and Johnson, who had run a seamstress shop called Nellie’s Shirt and Zipper Repair, was still taking work to pay the bills. She wasn’t worn out. “She wore you out,” says Hines, whose play about the civil-rights and labor activist, Nellie, opens January 26 at the History Theatre. “When she was pushing something, she was tenacious. She wore you down, like someone rubbing on a rock.” Hines laughs at the memory of Johnson calling lawyers and politicians at all hours of the night. “She was shameless. Some of the people who worked with her in the ’70s and ’80s hate her for that—she drove a lot of people nuts.” Nellie centers on her early work organizing staff at the all-male, all-white Minneapolis Athletic Club in the 1930s. Much of what she said then echoes today. “We’re not asking for what is theirs,” she declared. “We’re only asking for what is ours and a little respect, thank you!” Johnson went on to advise Hubert Humphrey on his game-changing civil-rights speech in 1948 and to help found the DFL Party. She might have appreciated the brass of Hines, who ignited a firestorm last year after writing a commentary for Minnesota Public Radio about the Guthrie Theater, which she feels has paid only lip service to diversity. “It’s a matter of priorities, of being valued,” Hines says. But if Johnson returned from the grave to confront today’s inequalities, Hines speculates, even she might fold with a bad case of déjà vu. “I think Nellie would be like, ‘I’m gonna go back to being dead—I’m not going through this again.’”

On the Road to Oscar?

Garrett Hedlund from Roseau to Red Carpet

Garrett Hedlund
Photo  courtesy of ifc films

He may be the next Brad Pitt, but 28-year-old Garrett Hedlund, who grew up on a farm near Roseau, landed one of literature’s ripest roles—the hedonistic beatnik Dean Moriarty in this winter’s indie hit On the Road—with a rather un-Hollywood move. “He drove all the way from northern Minnesota to Los Angeles, writing about the coffee shops, bars, and nudie joints along the way,” says Walter Salles, who directed this first-ever adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel. The Brazilian-born director of The Motorcycle Diaries was taken with Hedlund, who next stars in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, calling him a “revelation” and a “soulful young actor” who is unlikely to be changed by success: “He’s his own man.”