Nearly 10 million people saw Camille A. Brown’s work one night last year. Let that sink in. On a single evening – Easter Sunday 2018 – Brown’s choreography for NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert reached a number of viewers unimaginable in the dance, theater and concert halls of New York, and yet an accomplishment this year in one of those very theaters has made an impact quite possibly of equal or greater impact. Brown’s choreography for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play-with-music Choir Boy has been nominated for a 2019 Tony Award.
This Sunday, Brown, one foot in theater and the other in the world of dance (she’s the artistic director of her own New York-based company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers) will vie for the Tony against Warren Carlyle (Kiss Me, Kate), Denis Jones (Tootsie), David Neumann (Hadestown) and Sergio Trujillo (Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations). Outstanding nominees all, but in one accomplishment, Brown has already won: She’s the first woman of color to be nominated in the category in 23 years, a mind-boggling fact. Or maybe not.
Deadline spoke to Brown about that, and about straddling worlds, the challenges and the rewards of showing up, and about finding dance in the most casual of gestures and the words to describe it all.
Choir Boy, directed by Trip Cullman, ran from Dec. 12, 2018 to March 10, 2019, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: Let’s start with the fact I know next-to-nothing about dance – how to do it or even how to talk about it. How do you communicate with someone like me about what it is you contribute to a play – a play, not a musical – such as Choir Boy? Can you walk me through it?
Camille A. Brown: Trip Cullman, the director, contacted me about a year ago and said he was interested in bringing me on the team to put movement on the guys in the show. I’d been trying to see the show a couple of years ago when it was playing at [MTC’s] City Center, but it was sold out. So I was coming in blind and very nervous because I knew this show was beloved by many people. I said, I don’t want to mess it up, coming in here.
But I went to rehearsals and Trip showed me all of the scenes where he wanted my input, where he wanted movement, and as soon as I heard the guys singing a spiritual that Tarell Alvin McCraney [Moonlight], the playwright, interlinked inside of the play, I automatically thought about South African Gumboot, a social dance form in South Africa. South African miners [under Apartheid] weren’t allowed to speak or communicate with each other, so they communicated by making noises, hitting their gumboots.
And I also thought about Step, which is a dance form that originated in the United States but is very similar to South African Gumboot. A lot of historically black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs, do it a lot, their fraternities and sororities, and I knew I wanted to pull from this. And then that reminded me of Juba dance, which is a social dance that started in America among enslaved Africans, who weren’t allowed to have drums because their quote-unquote owners were fearful that they would be passing codes and communicating with each other through the drums, so they took the instruments away.
So, the enslaved Africans used their bodies as instruments that can make sounds and can have a voice of expression. They were able to create music with their bodies.
When I was hearing the spirituals [in Choir Boy] I was thinking about the historical context of them because they’re over 200 years old, but then looking at the men [in the cast] and how they are walking in life in 2019 I thought that this Juba, Step, South African Gumboot felt like a really good thing I could contribute to the work.
So I spoke to Trip about it, and I said Yes, if the guys are game, because I’m going to make it hard. I know they can do it. And they were. They were totally game. I challenged them and I challenged myself, counting a four count – one, two, three, four – and a five – one, two, three, four, five. Now, putting those together – one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, five – I’m going back and forth which is really hard to do. And they’re also singing on top of that as well, and I’m just so proud of them, and it was…oh, should I keep going?
Brown: I told them that this was a time for them to be unapologetic on stage, and to step into what all this means. I told them, You’re carrying this historical information but you’re also carrying who you are. It was about combining those things, and one of the very first things that I asked the guys was, How do you feel singing these songs? Because it’s not just about me coming in and putting in steps – there has to be the need and intention, an urgency, this combination of working and moving our bodies in space and having a dialogue.
Deadline: You operate in two worlds – the industries of dance and theater. Is there a distinct line or boundary between those two worlds, and is it difficult to cross?
Deadline: Somehow I expected that.
Brown: It’s very difficult, very challenging. I started in concert dance first, and when I became interested in doing theatre and would tell people, they were not negative but there was concern because theater is a completely different world. It functions differently, how business is handled works very differently, the amount of time put into the things and projects is different. Everything is different. I love my company. My company is my home, it’s my safe space, and the people that I’ve gathered are my community. So I always want to return home, but I think it’s important for me to be challenged by different perspectives and to be on teams with other collaborators. Being in the theater world has helped me to be a better choreographer because I want to tell stories and that’s what theater is about, telling stories. I also feel and see how it has helped me personally as a leader.
Deadline: How so?
Brown: In theater, my job as the choreographer is to serve the vision of the director, and so I’m constantly in meetings, observing how people communicate with each other. How do we empower the ensemble, the people that are going to perform these shows eight times a week? How do you get people excited and keep the excitement? How do you open this space where people feel like they can honestly contribute to something? All of those things that I’m learning in theater I can then take as a [dance] director and have those types of relationships with my collaborators, my dancers and musicians.
The first time I sat in on tech rehearsal for theater, I didn’t understand it because we were sitting there for like an hour on the first cue, and I kept thinking, Wow, this is amazing, you never get to do this in dance. In dance, you’ll have four hours of tech rehearsal, but in theater a tech rehearsal could be a week, and you’re there from noon to midnight working, changing, looking at cues, making mistakes, coming up with new ideas. Theater really gives you that opportunity, and I really learned the importance of having a full creative process. I definitely can’t work the exact same way [in dance] – in concert dance, we can’t really afford to be in the theater for 12 hours – but just the idea of giving yourself time, it really does matter.
Deadline: Can you speak to the specific challenges presented to you as a woman of color in the theater? I’ll start with the obvious, very dumb question: Do those special challenges exist?
Brown: They definitely exist. When I wanted to do theatre, I didn’t see many reflections of myself. So it was important for me to connect with black female choreographers who were working in theater, and that was Marlies Yearby and Dianne McIntyre. [Edit. note: Dianne McIntyre choreographed Ntozake Shange’s seminal 1976 piece for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf; Brown is set to choreograph a revival of for colored girls…at New York’s Public Theatre, with previews starting Oct. 8.]
This Tony nomination is so important to me, and has deep meaning, because the last black woman that was nominated in this category was Marlies Yearby in 1996, for Rent. So, it’s been 23 years since a black woman has been in this category. Just like Marlies and Dianne, whatever platform I have I hope that a young black girl who wants to choreograph for theater but doesn’t necessarily see many black females can see a reflection of herself through me. There are many times when I’m the only woman or I’m the only black person on a team, or I’m the only black woman on the team. And it’s not that there is any crazy, negative dynamic between anyone, but it’s just something that you see. So, yes, it’s definitely a challenge. Just look at the number of women in theater, and black women in theatre, and I think it’s actually clear. It’s real.
Deadline: Going forward, how will you balance dance and theater?
Brown: I do both. My [dance] company has been touring this whole year while I’ve been doing theater projects, and I still dance myself. So, I go out on tour and perform with them. We just came from Abu Dhabi, which was really exciting, and literally days after that the Tony nominations came in. I mean, one exciting experience after another. I’m currently working Off Broadway on Toni Stone for the Roundabout Theater Company, and Much Ado About Nothing for The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. And I’m work with Alvin Ailey, my third piece for them, and then I’m choreographing for The Met in the fall. I’m doing Porgy and Bess.
Deadline: Well, that’s a lineup.
Brown: All of it is made possible because of the community that supports me. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get on a plane, go to another side of the world, come back and be in a theater rehearsal space, you know? It’s because of people who, thankfully, believe in me, sometimes even when I don’t believe in myself. Community is important and it’s what keeps me going.
Deadline: How would you define community?
Brown: I define it as my family, my friends, my company, my agents, my staff, anyone who has given their time to lift me, anyone that I feel safe around to share my deepest fears, my joys, my pains. That’s my community.
Deadline: That’s as good a description of community as I’ve ever heard.
Deadline: Really. When I told you I have no vocabulary for dance and that you’d have to do the heavy lifting on this conversation, this is what I was hoping for.
Brown: This may sound crazy but sometimes when I’m talking to people and I know that dancing is not what they primarily do, I try not to use the word dance. It’s a trigger for people, like, Oh no, I can’t dance! That’s what people automatically say, the first thing you said on this call. As a choreographer, part of my job, especially when working with actors, rather than dancers, like in Choir Boy and Once On This Island – I only had one [trained] dancer for Once On This Island – it’s important for me to empower them. When we think of dance, we automatically think the turns, the splits, the kicks – everything you feel like you can’t do. But there is another aspect of dance, and it comes from our gestures. If you’re waving, then maybe you wave in a circle, now you’re starting to move, and that is going to become dance. It’s all dance.
Look at people on the subway. Look at how they’re sitting, if they’re fidgeting. That’s movement, that’s gestural information. I didn’t really talk when I was young because I have a small voice, and it was even smaller 20 years ago. So, I was very insecure about it, never participated in class. I just never did because I was afraid, and so I’ve always loved just observing people and their movements, and I realized that your body is saying something at all times. Movement is a language, and even though you may not know it, you’re speaking.