Camille A. Brown is a phenomenal woman. This year she continues to solidify her reputation as one of the most extraordinarily talented choreographers of her generation with a list that includes impressive achievements involving the Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” There are two Tony Award nominations, one for best direction of a play, and another for best choreography, not to mention Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for direction and choreography and the Drama League Award nomination for outstanding direction. Her work embodies the essence of storytelling, making her a dance griot of the African American/African diasporic experience. And, nowhere is that more evident than in Shange’s choreopoem.
This recent feat is only the latest of her works that include an impressive array of projects she’s taken on while maintaining her company Camille A. Brown’s & Dancers (CABD) which seeks to “instill curiosity and reflection in diverse audiences through her emotionally raw and thought-provoking work.” As anyone who has seen her company perform knows, she has an uncanny ability to enable Black bodies to “tell their story using their own language through movement and dialogue.” While this is a key mission for her company, it also is reflected in such other Broadway and off-Broadway projects as “Once On This Island,” “Toni Stone,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “for colored girls…”; film/television: Academy Award-winning “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Emmy Award-winning “Jesus Christ Superstar Live.” Ms. Brown has also choreographed the critically acclaimed “Porgy and Bess” for The Metropolitan Opera and this September became the first Black woman director for the main stage at the MET with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
Recently, she took a little time out of a busy schedule to speak to the Amsterdam News about her current historic role as director and choreographer of the current Broadway production of “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.”
AmNews: Congratulations on the amazing Tony Award nominations for your historic dual role with “for colored girls.” Talk to us about what this production of Ntozake’s groundbreaking play means to you.
CB: It’s been a part of my world from the beginning. My mom always told me don’t ever let anyone take your stuff away. She told me a couple of years ago that that saying was from the poem “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” by Ntozake, from the first Broadway production in the 1970s, so it just made me feel more connected to the show cause it’s been a part of my existence through my mom. So it’s special to be able to really dive into the poem under my own vision…and the stories I want to tell. Of course, Ntozake is obviously telling the story through her poetry but…I’m grateful her work has given me the courage to tell myself, “Ok Camille, this is a further extension of who you are and Ntozake is providing you with the perfect vehicle of a choreopoem.’”
AmNews: Tell folks what a choreopoem is exactly because it was formulated by Ntozake and now there are a lot of folks using the form without knowing or giving credit where credit is due.
CB: It means that movement and poetry co-exist. So often we get into situations where people feel like movement is too distracting, or movement is just about steps, but here Ntozake clearly defines movement as storytelling and that’s all that I am and so to be able to have that opportunity on this platform and today and have seven Black women represent the full spectrum of who we are, not just the pain but also the joy and the Black Girl Magic is so important. And to be able to hold that space for them and for them, in turn, to be able to hold the space for me is just really a moment. It’s a moment.
AmNews: You’ve made a few changes in this 2022 production of “for colored girls” that brings it up to date, can you discuss those?
CB: Yes, we have this American Sign Language (ASL) inclusion and we have the element of projection and sound and rhythm. You know I’m a rhythmical person so I have a very specific idea about what rhythms I saw specifically for each poem. Also, I knew Ntozake used Martha and the Vandellas when she wrote it in the 1970s and I thought well, I grew up in the 1990s so what if we swap Martha and the Vandellas for a SWV’s tune “I’m So Into You.” The point was making it “now”…showing these poems as timeless, as about more than looking back at what was but looking forward to what is still.
AmNews: You’ve always incorporated vernacular or social dance movements into your productions. I saw traces of the hambone, salsa, marenge and kids games in “for colored girls.” They all make it so relatable.
CB: Yeah. It’s like the whole African diaspora of the Black experience. We go from hand clap games like Little Sally Walker to Gigilo, which is in there ‘cause that’s what I grew up with, and we have the idea of referencing Juba. I incorporate Juba dance inside of my work in general so you’re going to see some type of hand-clapping, thigh-slapping in almost anything that I do, depending on what is called for in the piece. You’ll see a little essence of games that we play with each other as we transition from one poem to the next, to the next…showing how we exchange energy.
AmNews: I noticed that each of the women has a movement flow that is unique to them.
CB: I told the women that to me the colors represent vessels. So that the Lady in Red at the beginning is not necessarily, the Lady in Red at the end. So, we’re looking at, how do these women use these colors to evoke the essence of the women whose stories they step into. So usually, the poem “One” is done by the Lady in Red but I chose for it to be done by the Lady in Yellow because I wanted…the beginning as talking about the first time she lost her virginity, versus further on down in the show when we get to “One” where she uses her sexuality as a weapon.
AmNews: Trezana Beverley was the Lady in Red in the original production and she did “A Night With Beau Willy Brown.” That’s such a powerful piece. How do you incorporate that and movement together because that’s one of those stories where the world stops when you hear it. In fact, in the theater you could hear a pin drop as Kenita R. Miller in this year’s production tells the story.
CB: I told the women that this play is about empowerment and I told them I want us to end on a high note. And, in the beginning I told them I don’t want us to be seen as victims. When we look at the poem “dark phrases” and she talks about “Are we crazy? Are we ghouls?” You know, my response is ‘Yes I feel that,” also, “We were not born that way. We were not born confused. We were born magical and it’s the world that made us question who we were.” So, I wanted to start us in the place of empowerment. Then we go into our stories of struggle. But how we begin is important.
AmNews: Let’s talk about how important and relevant “for colored girls” is now and why people need to see it.
CB: I mean if we look at Judge Ketanji Brown. If we look at Roe v Wade. I mean it’s astonishing how even though these poems were written over 40 years ago, you look at them and you read them and you go, “Oh my gosh wow this feels like they were written yesterday.” Just in terms of Black girl empowerment. I mean, the time is now. What we’ve seen, what we’ve witnessed, what happened with Ketanji Brown, how she persevered and pushed through all the questioning that was going on in order for her to arrive on top of the mountain. Well, for us to see reflections of that on Broadway, to have seven women as an ensemble standing tall next to each other, that’s something everybody needs to see.
Following an earlier announcement that the show must close, the critically acclaimed and reimagined revival of Shange’s groundbreaking “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf” will now play an additional two weeks through Sunday, June 5, at Broadway’s Booth Theatre (222 West 45th Street). The previously announced final performance was Sunday, May 22. For more info, visit https://forcoloredgirlsbway.com.