ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you. I’m your host Elysa Gardner, and this season, we’ll be speaking with some of the artists and insiders who are continuing to help Broadway rebound and thrive after the COVID shutdown.
Today, I am joined by Camille A. Brown who is the first Black woman to both direct and choreograph a Broadway production in more than 65 years. That production is the new Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. This staging, now playing at the Booth Theatre, marks Camille’s Broadway debut as a director, but her work is well-known to theater and dance fans through stage and screen credits that include Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, for which she earned a Tony nomination for her choreography, and revivals of Once On This Island and A Streetcar Named Desire. Camille also won praise for her contributions to a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, Roundabout Theatre Company’s staging of Lydia R. Diamond’s Toni Stone, and NBC’s Emmy Award-winning Jesus Christ Superstar.
Her own awards and honors include a Guggenheim Award, a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, a Dance Magazine Award, a Doris Duke Artist Award, and five Princess Grace Awards, among others, in addition to three Drama Desk Award nominations and three Lucille Lortel Award nominations. Camille’s trilogy on race culture and identity includes the Bessie Award-winning Mr. TOL E. RAncE, the Bessie-nominated BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play and ink. She has also worked with the Metropolitan Opera, choreographing Porgy and Bess and becoming the first Black woman director for the main stage with Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and she made her feature film debut as a choreographer in George C. Wolfe’s Netflix adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Also, she is the founder and artistic director of her own company, Camille A. Brown and Dancers.
Camille, welcome to Stage Door Sessions; thank you so much for joining us today.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Thank you for having me, it’s an honor to be here.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, it’s an honor to have you, as, as people can tell from the credits I just listed. Um, I’ve been asking everyone how they’ve held up over the past couple of years. Have you stayed safe and healthy – what’s it been like for you?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Yes! You know, one of the hard things that I had to do was sustain my company and I really feel like I have a tremendous responsibility to my dancers. Although they have other jobs, they are choreographers and teachers and dancers for other companies as well, I just felt like, “okay, I have to do something when everything’s shut down.” So it was really an opportunity for my executive director, Diane Rosenblatt, and I to really become creative about how we were going to sustain the company, so, everyone is safe and healthy and we’re actually back on tour, which is really exciting. We started our tour in February and we just came back from George Mason University, so I’m really thankful for the support of organizations, dance, and theater organizations, that have supported my work during this COVID time.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, so you’re multitasking as theater and dance artists tend to do.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Yes, multitasking. I always say I have, I mean, I definitely do have two careers in terms of having a dance company in the concert dance world and then pursuing a theater career in the theater world. Those are very different worlds, so it can be challenging at times, but I love being able to go between the two.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. Well, we’ll focus for now on your thriving theater career for a bit. You were not yet born, I believe, when for colored girls premiered on Broadway back in 1976.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: You are correct! I wasn’t yet, I was born in 1979!
ELYSA GARDNER: The playwright described it as a choreo poem and it was hailed as this new, very lyrical form of theater in which different experiences were relayed through these soliloquies and through movement. When did you first become familiar with the work, either through seeing or reading the book or seeing the film adaptation?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Through my mom, she would always tell me, “don’t ever let anyone take your stuff away” and she’s been saying that to me as long as I can remember. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that she told me that she got it from, when I started working on the project, that she told me she got it from the play when she saw it on Broadway in the seventies. So this piece has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, really, and I remember seeing the poster in my aunt and uncle’s apartment in Brooklyn when I was younger so those are two very vivid memories that I have of this show. And my mom tells me that to this day, she just told me that yesterday.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh wow, wow. So she’s – I guess you’ve been in touch with her a lot about this production.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Oh, well, my mom and I are extremely close, so I speak to her every day, [chuckles] more than once a day. She just continues to encourage me and push me forward and that’s one of the things she said, “don’t let anyone take your stuff away.” She’s been saying that to me since I was like four years old since, like I said, since as early as I can remember.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Yeah. Is she a dancer? Did she encourage your love of dance early on?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Definitely. She introduced me to musical theater…
ELYSA GARDNER: Ah!
CAMILLE A. BROWN: …and she was a lover of music and theater. I’m before the internet era so she would take me to the library and we would take out videos of musicals and just watch them, and I would try to learn all the dance scenes and we would just rewind them over and over and over again. So she’s really been pivotal in my career and why I wanted to pursue a career in musical theater.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, this work in particular as someone who is so skilled at expressing emotion through movement, I imagine the aspect of combining that with verbal expression in this particular way that was really pioneered with this show must’ve been very exciting for you.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Oh, it’s thrilling! I mean, I love storytelling and that is part of my work in concert dance, so to bring the way I work in concert dance into theater, sometimes it’s more that I bring my theater into my concert dance, but this was actually an opportunity where it switched so it was really exciting to delve into it in this way. And for her to, Ntozake Shange, to really create a choreopoem where dance is leading, one of the leading things along with the text was something that was extremely exciting.
ELYSA GARDNER: Did you always know as a young woman, as a young girl, studying dance that eventually you wanted to choreograph? And for that matter was directing a goal as well?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: I knew I loved putting things together and creating, I just didn’t know that it would be possible for me because I didn’t see, although there were many people, Black women that were doing it, the exposure was not as much as others, so, sometimes when you don’t see as many reflections of yourself, it’s kind of hard for you to believe that things are really possible for you but, you know, this is a time to shout out Dianne McIntyre and Marlies Yearby who are mentors of mine that have been working in theater and dance for a really long time…
ELYSA GARDNER: Mhmm.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: …and seeing them has really encouraged me and helped me to believe that, “okay, I can do this,” but for a while, it was tough and it still is tough because concert dance and theater are both very male-dominated fields.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right. Of course. Now you’re following also in Katherine Dunham’s footsteps…
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: …being – she was the last Black woman I believe, to direct and choreograph on Broadway back in 1955. Ntozake Shange herself had such a fascinating life. She was a child during the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, she endured great racism at that time, but she was also surrounded by the arts and encouraged to be an artist. And she then struggled with depression as a young woman, she attempted suicide, but then she was greatly empowered becoming a poet, a playwright, a feminist. What aspects of her life did you find most compelling and inspiring as you prepared for this production?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Everything. You look at the production as a whole and the plays and you see that she really put a lot of herself inside of them so it’s really hard to take one specific point in her life, you know. I think it was really important for me to look at all of who she was because it’s just so wrapped up in, in the play itself.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Yeah, of course. Well, did any of the particular soliloquies or characters speak to you? I mean, I assume they all do.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: You know, I always feel like those are trick questions! It’s like, well, they all do, they all have to, you know, it’s like I have to be completely invested in every single poem and try to find what my entry point is in every single one. And these poems are so individual, but they require a great deal of sisterhood and empowering and holding space for each other while they’re telling these stories. So it’s really not about picking one, it’s about looking at all of them and lifting all of them up in the space.
ELYSA GARDNER: Of course. And you can’t, um, we can’t favor any one of your children, I guess [laughs].
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Exactly!
ELYSA GARDNER: for colored girls was introduced at a time when the culture had undergone change and more progress was, for many people, certainly a goal if not a reality. And there’s been another sort of reckoning in recent years, the past few years and there’s been praise for the number of artists of color, for example, represented on Broadway this season. Are you optimistic this is a sign of enduring progress?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: I mean we will see.
ELYSA GARDNER: Mhmm.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: You know, I think we were, last year, at a time where there were a lot of things said, like, “we will do this, we will do this, we are working on this.” Now it’s about action. So, you know, I’m interested in how this continues. I’m waiting to see – I’m, I’m watching as we all are I’m sure.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. You were talking before about how few Black female artists were represented, you know, when you were looking to people growing up, although obviously, you found wonderful role models. I’ve gleaned your identity and your heritage are central to your artistry from the projects – many different projects you’ve done. Tell us a bit about how that manifests itself generally.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Oh, that’s a hard question. I mean, you know, I, I feel like I’m like the worst person to talk about myself and what I do. I just, you know, the best thing I can do is be me and I’m originally from Jamaica, Queens, New York, born and raised.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, wow!
CAMILLE A. BROWN: [chuckles] And so, you know, hopefully, you see that in my work. How I grew up, you know, how I relate to the African diaspora, where I’m pulling from. I’m classically trained as well, but it’s about really leaning into my culture and my history, so I really try to put a lot of that in. And also who I am as a person, you know. Ntozake Shange put a lot of her life experiences inside of her poetry. I do that with my dance and my, and my theater and my direction. So, I just try to put myself in everything that I do and that’s when it becomes uniquely yours.
ELYSA GARDNER: Of course. Would you define yourself as an activist outside of dance or I should say through dance?
CAMILLE A. BROWN: I would define myself as Camille. I don’t like putting labels on myself.
ELYSA GARDNER: Sure.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: I think if that’s what people see then that’s wonderful. I do think that is an aspect of me, but that is not all that I am. So, you know, I try to, when people – even when people ask me to describe my movement, I say it’s Camille.
ELYSA GARDNER: Uh, huh!
CAMILLE A. BROWN: So that’s, that’s what I would say.
ELYSA GARDNER: Fair enough. [chuckles] Well, tell us a bit about the process of casting for colored girls then. I’m sure you had a wealth of talent to draw from. What was that process like and when did you begin? Did COVID interfere with it in any way? I mean, I know it was announced last year, I think in August, in the summer you were going to be doing this production, so..
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Yeah, it was supposed to come around, I think spring of 2020. And I was not ready. The last production, I was the choreographer, I was not the director, and I knew that it was important for me to have my own vision, my own understanding of how I wanted to tell the stories. And it was coming around so fast that I was really afraid and I started panicking and everything stopped because of COVID and shut down and it really gave me an opportunity to sit back and figure out what I wanted to say with this show. And there were a lot of things that happened during COVID that were really horrific and hurtful, but in this case, it helped my process and it allowed me to breathe and breathe into the work and see the poetry a second time and really delve into it even deeper and take that time.
And the audition process started, I believe in November and it was really exciting to see. I mean, it’s a show that is over 40 years old, so it was really interesting to see how many talented people came in with different interpretations of the show. So it was, it was wonderful and the people that are a part of this work now, the women that are in sisterhood, I am just so honored to share space with them and it’s been, it’s been a real joy to be in this process with them creating.
The first thing that we did during rehearsal, normally you have a read-through where you sit down with your scripts and you read everything, but we actually had a dance-through.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, wow!
CAMILLE A. BROWN: So I took them through all of the movements of the show that I, that I had in my brain and had movement for so far and we just went from the top of show all the way to the end, because I wanted them to get an understanding of how I was entering the space. And I wanted to enter it with what I knew and what I know, which is dance. So the process has been really, really amazing. And then, and then we sat down and of course did table work and delved more into the show, and its meaning and everything. But we used movement as a way to really unpack a lot of the context of the show.
ELYSA GARDNER: And you have to weave all that stuff together, the verbal stuff and the physical stuff.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Right.
ELYSA GARDNER: So yeah, must have been challenging and thrilling at the same time.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Yes.
ELYSA GARDNER: I believe you have other projects on deck where you’ll be serving as a director.
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Uh, yes! I’m not sure I can speak of them right now…
ELYSA GARDNER: [chuckkles]
CAMILLE A. BROWN: …but yes there are things coming down the pipeline that are extremely exciting that I’m looking forward to doing in the future. And like you mentioned earlier, I co-directed Fire Shut Up in My Bones this past fall, so that was really wonderful to work with James Robinson, who was my co-director, and with Terence Blanchard. So yeah, I’m excited!
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, is that something you’re hoping to do more of in the future, directing and choreographing along the lines of Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Katherine Dunham. [laughs]
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Absolutely! I mean, my friends and family, remind me all the time like, “Camille, you do this all the time. You have your own company.” I mean, I’ve had my own company for over 15 years and I’ve been a director of that company. So in a sense, I have been directing and choreographing. It’s just now moving into another, another space, which is, which is very different and I’m learning a lot, but, you know, I can’t forget that it’s something that I have been doing.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Yeah. I guess it involves a lot of work and direction on a lot of different levels running your own company. Well, is there anything else you want to tell us about the production other than we all want to see it obviously? [laughs]
CAMILLE A. BROWN: [laughs] I think one of the things that I had to get – I had to get out of my own way – because this piece was done and has been done so many times. It’s over 40 years old. There’ve been so many versions of it, it’s easy for you to get caught up in “okay, I have to do it like this. People are going to remember this line, you have to say it like this. Don’t forget this,” you know, and I had to finally say to myself, “Camille, just do you.” And like my friend told me, it’s an offering and that’s what I’m interested in sharing with the audience. How my perspective, my interpretation of these poems, and this world that Ntozake Shange has created. So I’m excited about sharing that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Great. Well, listen, thank you so much for joining us today. And we’re all looking forward to seeing for colored girls and you please stay safe and healthy!
CAMILLE A. BROWN: Thank you, you do the same!
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway, and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. If you liked our show, please follow us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And don’t forget to share and rate Stage Door Sessions, so fellow theater fans can find us as well. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and Paul Art Smith, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening, and we look forward to seeing you again on Broadway.