Playwright-in-Residence at Illusion Theater

Through HowlRound Theatre Commons’ National Playwright Residency Program, in collaboration with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Carlyle Brown has been named a Playwright-in-Residence at Illusion Theater and School in Minneapolis.

The residency will span three years “as a way of reimagining what institutions might look like when an artist’s voice is at their cores.”

Learn more about the National Playwright Residency Program.


Afro-Atlantic Playwright Festival (Minneapolis, July 12–14, 2019)

CASSIS, FRANCE — In 2018, eight accomplished black playwrights—four from Africa and four from the U.S.—convened in Cassis, France, for four extraordinary weeks, to participate in the Camargo Foundation’s Cultural Diaspora residency, conceived and curated by award-winning Minneapolis based playwright Carlyle Brown. Realized with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Jerome Foundation, Ford Foundation, and FACE (French American Cultural Exchange), the residency’s goal was to bring together mid-career and established African and African-American theater artists, in Brown’s words, “from opposite ends of the Africanist Diaspora,” engaging them in debates about identity and authenticity and exploring the different ways in which international boundaries shape the African experience.

The eight winners, selected from 72 applications from 25 African nations and dozens of U.S. cities, included: Bode Asinyabi (Benin City, Nigeria), France-Luce Benson (New York City, U.S.), Kara Lee Corthron (New York City, U.S.), Kimberly Ellis (Pittsburgh, U.S.), Blessing Hungwe (Harare, Zimbabwe), Zainabu Jallo (Bern, Switzerland/Nigeria), Genevieve Jessee (San Francisco, U.S.), and Femi Osofisan (Ibadan, Nigeria). The residency was co-directed by acclaimed theater director Chuck Mike, who described the experience as a chance to “explore one’s craft, voice, and African-ness in a picturesque and encouraging atmosphere with kindred spirits.” As a measure of the residency’s success, the Cultural Diaspora has inspired the Afro-Atlantic Playwright Festival (Minneapolis, July 12–14, 2019). A collaboration of the Camargo Foundation, the Playwrights’ Center, and Carlyle Brown & Company, the festival will feature workshops, a panel discussion on theater and Afro-Atlantic culture, and stage readings of the works completed at Camargo by fellows Osofisan, Jallo, and Benson. The festival is made possible with kind support from the Venturous Theater Fund.

The Cultural Diaspora residency and Afro-Atlantic Playwright Festival are timely, given the intensifying debate on race and identity in contemporary culture and politics. Brown, whose work consistently provokes conversations about race, cites as inspiration for these programs the West African griots—the storytellers, praise singers, poets who carry on a culture’s oral traditions and serve as repositories of African people’s histories. He notes, “In African-American culture I consider preachers, spoken-word artists, stand-up comics, blues singers, and playwrights as part of that tradition. I have long been fascinated by the mysteries of the transference of those traditions from Africa to the New World, and how they managed to survive through subversion and rebellion, transforming itself into one of the major cultural influences in the world.”

The festival, free and open to the public, will take place at the Playwrights’ Center, renowned for supporting playwrights and promoting new plays to production at theaters across the U.S. While at Camargo, fellows had the opportunity to meet African-European artists, work with local theater students, and participate in a roundtable discussion entitled “African and Afro-Descendent Writing,” which was presented as part of the Festival de Marseille and Massilia Afropea. In Minneapolis, they will discuss the impact of these experiences on their work and debate various conceptual and cultural facets of African diaspora studies. A second event will take place in New York in Fall 2019, in collaboration with NYU’s Department of Literature and Tisch Theatre Studies program.

The Camargo Foundation plans to reprise the Cultural Diaspora program in 2021, expanding the residency to six weeks and broadening the open call to include playwrights of African descent (mid-career or established) from all over the world, not just Africa and the U.S.; all playwrights who identify themselves as part of the diaspora are eligible to apply. The Foundation hopes to establish the Cultural Diaspora as a recurring program, signaling an important new chapter for the Camargo, which has been offering residencies to artists, thinkers, and scholars since 1971. By organizing residencies along thematic lines, the Foundation provides artists with diverse backgrounds, working along shared lines of thought, the chance to exchange of perspectives and opportunities to network and collaborate. Importantly, the Cultural Diaspora offered its participants “a safe haven, free of occidental screening and judgment with no self-explanations and no obligations to represent  anyone but oneself,” as residency co-facilitator and theater director Chuck Mike put it. The Camargo Foundation is currently seeking grants and other funding to launch the next Cultural Diaspora residency, which will include follow-up events in the U.S. and Africa in 2021-2022.

Since 1971, the Camargo Foundation has welcomed hundreds of artists, thinkers, and scholars to its stunning campus in Cassis, South of France. The artist residency program grew out of a series of experimental music and theater festivals organized by Camargo Foundation founder Jerome Hill in the 1950s and 1960s, which included commissions from the New York–based Living Theater, French composer Oliver Messiaen, and others. His Cassis estate became a refuge for artists, attracting avantgarde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, actress Brigitte Bardot, and many others. Through international open calls and a rigorous selection process, the Camargo Foundation supports groundbreaking research and experimentation in the arts and humanities. Notable past fellows include theater director Lee Breuer, experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, composer Fabrizio Cassol, choreographer Wen Hui, and also scholars Ben Kiernan or Alice Kaplan. The Camargo Foundation is a U.S.-registered 501c3 nonprofit and contributions are tax deductible.

Founded in 1971 by five writers seeking artistic and professional support, the Playwrights’ Center today serves more playwrights in more ways than any other organization in the U.S. The Center focuses on supporting playwrights and promoting new plays to production, helping to launch the careers of numerous nationally recognized artists, notably August Wilson, Lee Blessing, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jordan Harrison, Carlyle Brown, Craig Lucas, Jeffrey Hatcher, Melanie Marnich, and Kira Obolensky. Works developed through Center programs have been realized on such stages as the Yale Rep, Woolly Mammoth, Guthrie, Goodman, and many others. Its Core Writer Program gives 25–30 of the most exciting playwrights from across the U.S. the time and tools to develop new work for the stage.

Carlyle Brown & Company was founded by playwright, performer, and theater director Carlyle Brown in 2002 around a constellation of culturally and ethnically diverse artists dedicated to the
performance of his work in an atmosphere of collaborative co-creation. The company is interested in innovations in dramatic form, rich storytelling, and shaping ideas into theatrical events. The
Company has produced Are you now or have you ever been…, Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House, Therapy and Resistance, Finding Fish, Down in Mississippi, Talking Masks, The Fula From America, The Masks of Othello, and Acting Black: Demystifying Racism. The latter is one-man show performed by Brown, styled like a TED talk, created to spark honest conversations about race and diversity. Brown’s works have been presented at theaters across the U.S.

For more information, artist portraits, or to schedule interviews, please contact:
Muriel Rose, Development and Communication Coordinator
Camargo Foundation, Cassis, France
[email protected]

To learn more about how to support the Camargo Foundation, please contact:
Cathy Lang Ho, Director of U.S. Development and Partnerships
Camargo Foundation, New York, NY
[email protected]

For more information about the Playwrights’ Center, please contact:
Gregory Collins, Director of Marketing and Communications
Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis, MN
[email protected]


Camargo African-American/African Playwrights Residency

Dear Friends,

My overall artistic practice as an African-American theater artist is rooted in the traditions of the West African Griots who with their songs and recitations are the traditional story tellers and the repositories of the history of African peoples in oral culture. In African-American culture I consider preachers, spoken word artists, stand-up comics, blues singers and playwrights as part of that tradition. I have long been fascinated by the mysteries of the transference of those traditions from Africa to the new world through the transatlantic slave trade and how it managed to survive through subversion and rebellion the oppressive, subjugating atmosphere in which it shaped and transformed itself into one of the major cultural influences in the world.

The Atlantic Ocean is a cultural lake whose principal port is the West Coast of Africa from where it has been exporting its African-ness aesthetic for hundreds of years spreading across the Caribbean Sea into South America and the United States where Black Americans are its most noted beneficiaries. Black American artists who are aware that they are related genetically and aesthetically to the artists of West Africa have over time created a body of artistic expression so distinct and unique that American culture could not be what it is without it.  This kinship and connection, this expanded sense of space, geography, history and the imagination are the African-ness ingredients that shape art making on both sides of the Atlantic.  Contemporary West African and African-American text based theater and performance artists share these traditions and their history, as well as the common  problems of creating art in opposition to a dominate culture saturated in racism and colonialism. The idea for the Camargo African-American/African Playwrights’ Residency Program is to bring together African and African American text based theater artists from opposite ends of the Africanist diaspora to share work, ideas and strategies for surviving as Black artists, without the veil of a white/western filter, without having to explain themselves, without having to represent an entire group of people, but to explore their craft, their voice and their African-ness in a beautiful, safe, supportive environment with like-minded individuals.

We are seeking to develop post residency events featuring residency playwrights including readings and round table discussions. If you have any thoughts, ideas or opportunities to share in this regard it would be greatly appreciated. Contact us here.

All the best,


Carlyle Brown is Honoree of 37th Annual William Inge Theatre Festival

For immediate release – Minneapolis, MN – Playwright Carlyle Brown is the recipient of the William Inge Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater Award, at the 37th Annual William Inge Theatre Festival at Independence Community College, Kansas. The Inge Festival, the Official Theatre Festival of the State of Kansas, takes place May 9-12, 2018.

Carlyle Brown is a playwright, actor, and artistic director of Carlyle Brown & Company, which he founded in Minneapolis in 2002. Known for his historical works about African Americans, his extremely theatrical work occupies a wide range of aesthetic forms.

Described by The New York Times as “one of America’s more significant playwrights” he has a long and rich history of creating plays that dramatize historical events in a way that makes them accessible to present day audiences.

His best known play is indicative of this style. The African Company Presents Richard the Third premiered in 1987, and is about the first African American theatrical company’s staging of the first black public performances of Shakespeare, which occurred in colonial New York City.

Additional historic-based plays imagine a meeting between President Lincoln and the literary character of Uncle Tom from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel (Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House). The play Dartmoor Prison centers on an African- prisoner and his relationship to white United States captives in a British prison during the War of 1812; and The Negro of Peter the Great is based on an unfinished story by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, inspired by the tale of a kidnapped African prince and the 18th century Russian Czar.

Carlyle Brown further examines the black experience in plays such as The Masks of Othello: A Theatrical Essay, which explores the meaning of race throughout the ages in the production history of Othello; and The Fula From American: an African Journey, an autobiographical solo show about Carlyle’s adventures in West Africa, as an African-American in search for his African identify.

“Carlyle Brown’s fascinating body of work is highly worthy as one of the outstanding achievements by contemporary American playwrights, which we are excited to recognize and celebrate,” said Eric Rutherford, Artistic Director of the William Inge Center for the Arts. “Even if theater patrons are not yet introduced to Mr. Brown’s scholarly yet accessible stories, I have no doubt they will become lifelong fans after getting acquainted,” Rutherford said.

Carlyle Brown is currently a writer/performer and artistic director of Carlyle Brown & Company, based in Minneapolis. Carlyle Brown & Company was formed in 2002 around a constellation of culturally and ethnically diverse artists dedicated to the development and performance of his work in an atmosphere of collaborative co-creation. The Company is interested in innovations in dramatic form, rich story-telling and shaping ideas into theatrical events.

Brown has received commissions from numerous major theaters, such as Arena Stage, the Houston Grand Opera, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and The Goodman Theater, among many. He is the 2006 recipient of the Black Theatre Network’s Winona Lee Fletcher Award for outstanding achievement and artistic excellence.

A Core Writer of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, and an alumnus of New Dramatists in New York, Brown is also recipient of numerous fellowships. Brown has served on the board of directors of The Playwrights’ Center and Theatre Communications Group and is a member of the board of the Jerome Foundation. He is a member of the Charleston Jazz Initiative Circle at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, where his works and papers are archived.

He has been a teacher of expository writing at New York University, African-American literature at the University of Minnesota, playwriting at Ohio State University and Antioch College, African-American theater and dramatic literature at Carlton College as the Benedict Distinguished Visiting Artist, and “Creation and Collaboration” at the University of Minnesota Department of Theater. He has worked as a museum exhibit writer and story consultant for the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, and the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, Kentucky.

Brown now joins a select roster of world-renowned playwrights who have traveled to the Inge Festival to receive the William Inge Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater Award. They include Arthur Miller, Stephen Sondheim, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, David Henry Hwang, Tina Howe, August Wilson, and Neil Simon, to name only a few.

The William Inge Theater Festival is named for the Pulitzer Prize and Oscar winning writer William Inge, a native of Independence, Kansas. The town is located 90 miles north of Tulsa, Okla.

The Inge Festival was founded in 1981 at Independence Community College, to celebrate the work of living playwrights. In 2010, the Kansas State Legislature designated it as the Official Theater Festival of the State of Kansas.

Independence Community College also houses the William Inge Collection. It comprises more than 400 original manuscripts by Inge, including some not yet published. The Collection also has numerous personal and other memorabilia from Inge’s career. More About Carlyle Brown

Writer/performer and artistic director Carlyle Brown’s first professional theater production was his Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show at Penumbra Theatre Company in 1986. The next year Penumbra premiered his now famous The African Company Presents Richard III. With a Penumbra premier of Buffalo Hair in 1994 and a National McKnight Fellowship, Brown moved to the Twin Cities and it has been his artistic home ever since. Other Twin Cities productions: Beggars’ Strike at the Children’s Theater Company, the Mixed Blood production of Pure Confidence that moved to off-Broadway in New York and American Family at Park Square Theater

His plays include The Negro of Peter the Great, A Big Blue Nail, Dartmoor Prison, The Pool Room, Yellow Moon Rising, Down in Mississippi and others. He has received commissions from Arena Stage, the Houston Grand Opera, the Children’s Theatre Company, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Goodman Theater, Miami University of Ohio and the University of Louisville. He is recipient of playwriting fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, Jerome Foundation, Theatre Communications Group and the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Brown has been artist-in-residence at New York University School of the Arts Graduate Acting Program, The James Thurber House in Columbus, and Ohio State University Theater Department.

He has been a teacher of expository writing at New York University; African-American literature at the University of Minnesota; playwriting at Ohio State University and Antioch College; African American theater and dramatic literature at Carlton College as the Benedict Distinguished Visiting Artist, and “Creation and Collaboration” at the University of Minnesota Department of Theater.

He has worked as a museum exhibit writer and story consultant for the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, and the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, Kentucky. Mr. Brown is a Core Writer at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and he is an alumnus of New Dramatists in New York. He has served on the board of directors of Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the non-profit professional theater. He is a member of the board of directors for the Playwrights’ Center and the Jerome Foundation and a Trustee of the Camargo Foundation.

He is the 2006 recipient of The Black Theatre Network’s Winona Lee Fletcher Award for outstanding achievement and artistic excellence, a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, a 2010 recipient of the Otto Rene’ Castillo Award for Political Theatre, and 2010 United States Artists Fellow. ###


On Shakespeare and Cultural Identity

In 2011, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced Carlyle Brown’s play The African Company Presents Richard III, which recounts the historic 1821 staging of Shakespeare’s Richard III by America’s first African-American theater company. Carlyle was invited to speak at the festival, and an excerpt of his remarks was recently published in the Star Tribune:

When Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch called to tell me that the festival was producing “African Company,” I asked him why. I’m a writer so I am curious about these things.

Bill told me that some patrons were puzzled by the appearance of black actors in Shakespeare’s plays and hoped that “The African Company” would open up that discussion. This was very gratifying to me because I always wanted the play to be useful.

I believe that all actors’ training is culturally based. The actor is trying to inhabit the archetypal persona of his/her culture. For African-American actors in American acting conservatories, where the Western canon and Western aesthetics are the basis for training and discourse, there is a chasm that separates the African-American actor from his/her true potential, because the African-American in American society is both part and not a part of the culture. This paradox is the dilemma that is at the root of American identity, race relations and our social and political history.

As an African-American playwright I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to create plays and roles that compensate for the lack of our own conservatories; to shape opportunities for African-American actors to inhabit more than handkerchief-head stereotypes and the usual urban suspects, but rather to reveal to all the deeper resources of our culture and our contributions to our national identity and to humanity.

Africa speaks with many voices
If you travel down the West Coast of Africa, as I have, you will find such a cacophony of languages, cultures and ethnicities so different from each other that the categorization “African” becomes meaningless.

Coming to these shores, the Africans had only three commonalities: the color of their skin (black), the state of their condition (slavery) and the need to learn a new language (English). So what do they do to endure and survive?

Well, they do what is natural to humankind, they make culture. They make it because it is in our nature. Spiders make webs, bees make honey and people make culture. But how and what culture should they make? The existing Euro-American culture was of little use to them; they were trying to make culture themselves.

They couldn’t use their former cultures because, like the banning of drums and drumming, much of their former cultural practices were against the law. They had to make something new and they had to make it subversively. They had to make culture in a world where culture was denied them.

We now know that the culture these Africans began to make would become the most distinctive, enduring and original elements of American culture. Music, language, social style, you name it, if you take the Africanism out of American culture what have you got? I myself cannot imagine what that would be.

Enter Shakespeare, stage right
But why Shakespeare? I asked myself as I began the journey of writing “African Company.” And the more I thought about it the more it became perfectly clear why Shakespeare. With Shakespeare they can actively learn the peculiarities and subtleties of the new language. They learn to organize themselves around a singular endeavor.

The plays give them a structure to explore their own allusive forms. And Shakespeare gives them cover so as not to appear to be engaged in any activity that might remotely be construed as rebellious. Doing the plays must have been a way to imagine the unimaginable, to have a sense of possibility, and to dare to dream, crave and desire to have the power to have sovereignty over one’s own life.

Across town at New York’s white and powerful Park Theater, producer Stephen Price was putting up his own “Richard III” in 1821. In Price’s view the African Company’s productions were nothing more than imitative performances of a bunch of woolly headed inmates from the city’s kitchens and pantries, but what the blacks were doing was nothing short of something new and original and remarkable and soon Stephen Price would come to regard it as tantamount to an act of rebellion.

Two separate societies, each searching for their individual cultural identities — one white, one black; one rich, the other lowly; one with resources, the other resourceful. It is as if they were cultural combatants on a cultural dueling ground and the black duelist was asked to choose a weapon — or play, as it were. And the black duelist replied, “My weapon of choice is ‘The Tragedy of King Richard III’ by William Shakespeare.”

Finding their own story in the play
“The Tragedy of King Richard III” must have been a play that was deeply accessible to them. They were not imitating anybody; they were making something bold and completely new.

This disparate group of former African people taken in chains to a strange new land was making a journey of self-discovery and cultural affirmation. One might say that the beginnings of what it means to be African-American started more as an idea than a biological reality.

Performing in a play where they portrayed kings and queens, noblemen and noble ladies countered the narrative of slavery and opened a door to a new narrative of their own.

This to me is a marvelous true story. A story as beautiful and universal as all the stories of the making of culture, of the making of a people as all the stories ever told of culture-making, from antiquity to this present moment. It speaks to the power of the creative force.

A timeless message
This is why Shakespeare is great. Writing for his time, for a 16th-century English audience, he gave them their history for understanding their contemporary context, comedies for laughter, tragedies to embrace their grief, insight and the worship of nature, and still if Shakespeare belonged to anybody, he belongs to everybody.

We now live in an era that is reflective of early 19th-century America. We are becoming a world as our early American world began, as a multicultural world. We are living in a world where artists, at the very least anyway, are making culture out of cultures. And we are seeing in the world today not just a clash of cultures, but unification.

Who owns Shakespeare? one might ask. You might as well ask who has the right to breathe, to dream, to express their selves, to be themselves, to live in and make a meaningful contribution to their world. I submit to you that as human beings this is an obligation and responsibility for all of us.


History Theatre presents new play by Carlyle Brown

2016 is off to a fast start and the pace promises to be brisk. In February for Black History Month the History Theatre in St. Paul will be producing my new play George Bonga: Black Voyageur.

I knew nothing about Minnesota History until I took up research to write this play and what I discovered was a rich, complex, multicultural world of powerful Indian nations, European powers and a new and undercapitalized America in a tense rivalry over the trade in beaver fur. And among all these different races and nations standing almost singular unto himself is the black, mixed blood trader and voyageur George Bonga, a man as legendary as Paul Bunyan, except he was real.

I hope you will take part and join us!

With best wishes,

George Bonga:Black Voyageur

written by Carlyle Brown
directed by Marion McClinton

February 6–February 28, 2016

1837. Trekking for six days and six nights in a blistering cold Minnesota winter, legendary Boundary Waters voyageur George Bonga is tasked with tracking down a fugitive Ojibwe warrior accused of murdering a white man. A multilingual man of mixed blood, Bonga lived on the boundaries of Black, White, and Ojibwe. Is Bonga really tracking down a murderer, or is he chasing his own demons?

More information and tickets »


In the News: American Theatre

Sparring Partners: Carlyle Brown & James A. Williams

by Rohan Preston; article originally published in American Theatre Magazine, Oct. 2013 

Sometimes, it seems, the two heavyweights are getting ready to rumble. In one corner is Charleston, S.C.–born and Harlem-reared playwright Carlyle Brown. In the other, representing the Gateway Arch, is St. Louis­–bred actor-director James A. Williams. The two have been coming to blows since 1986, when they met in the Twin Cities before the premiere of Brown’s breakout play, The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show. Williams originated Brown’s critical gloss on the iconic minstrelsy character Tambo in Tommy Parker.
“If people don’t know us, and we’re in a room talking, it might sound like we’re fighting,” says Williams, whom the Minneapolis Star Tribune named its artist of the year in 2008 for his magisterial turns in August Wilson’s plays. “It’s a very passionate exchange of ideas.”

“Our conversations and arguments are above a certain baseline,” says Brown, whose plays include Pure Confidence and The African Company Presents Richard III. “When you work with the same people all the time, you don’t have to explain yourself. The problem with explanation is that the more explicative you become, the further away you get from your art. We get right to the heart of things.”

In the 27 years since they started working together, Brown has written more than half-a-dozen parts for Williams. The actor depicted King Dick in Brown’s Dartmoor Prison. He has played all the famous black actors to portray Othello in The Masks of Othello: A Theatrical Essay, a piece gleaned from critical reviews over the centuries. And he will play Uncle Tom in Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House, which opens in March 2014 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis under the aegis of Brown’s eponymous company. Williams will portray the fictive character come to life from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel.

Williams also has directed a production of Tommy Parker at Missouri’s St. Louis Black Repertory, while Brown has served as dramaturg for an Othello in which Williams played the Moor. Over coffee and pastries at a Twin Cities café, not far from where both men live, the pair seem like old-marrieds, with the years etched in their grizzled faces and salt sprinkled liberally in the pepper of their hair. The sparring partners laugh heartily and smile with approval at each other as they explain that their decades-long friendship and professional relationship are similarly grounded in a shared passion about the transformative power of theatre, as well as profound mutual respect and a kinship based on biographies of similar struggles and triumphs.

Before he became an actor and director, Williams, who also works with at-risk young men ensnared in the criminal justice system, says that he did not even dream of a life of theatre. “Growing up in St. Louis, the thing I wanted to be was not shot,” ventures Williams. “Theatre was and is a personal salvation for me.”

Williams went to Macalester College in St. Paul, and launched his career as an early member of that city’s Penumbra Theatre, the place where August Wilson received his first professional production and which, arguably, remains the best interpreter of Wilson’s canon. (Williams is called “Jay Dub” by his friends, including the late Wilson, who named a character in Jitney “Doub” in Williams’s honor.)

Before Brown became a playwright, he had gone through the heady days of the civil rights struggle and become a ship captain. As he plied the seas, he sorted ideas, scenarios and dialogue in his head. Tommy Parker, which premiered in 1987 under Lou Bellamy’s direction at Penumbra, was his first produced play. Williams had been on the new-play committee that selected it.

“I remember, when we were reading it, we all went wow,” says Williams. “It jumped off the page. It was poignant with the history of performers and minstrelsy and the struggle to be a man.”

That play announced Brown’s interests as a playwright. He interrogates history, writing characters who are not flights of fancy in historical pageants, not absurdities.

“A play is a struggle for power,” says Brown. “You can’t give the agency to one set of characters or actors. Black people can’t be spectators in their own stories set in slavery, or the civil rights era, or wherever.”

Williams played a variety of male parts in Talking Masks, Brown’s collection of six playlets—one of the shorts, The Runaway Honeymoon, is based on a true story of an enslaved couple that escaped to freedom because the wife, who was fair-skinned, posed as a man. The husband, in turn, posed as her slave. “One of the beautiful things about working with a great playwright is that the words sometimes walk with you into the world,” says Williams.

Brown’s Dartmoor Prison, for example, is set in 1812. Its historical facts are not broadly known. The War of 1812 began in part because the British navy was impressing American seamen into service for its war against Napoleon. Those Americans who refused to fight were imprisoned on a British moor, including a significant proportion of black sailors. Inside the prison, as depicted in Brown’s play, the sailors self-segregate and are in a constant state of battle.

Brown and Williams share similar ideas about how they build their characters. “When I’m working, I stack ideas on top of each other, like bricks or pancakes,” explains Williams. “If he gives me something that doesn’t stack, that sits akimbo, then I need him to explain it to me so that we can try to build the character.”

The two men use the issue of colorblind casting to illustrate their point. “When people start talking about colorblind casting, they’re talking about something we know doesn’t exist, because the moment you walk out onstage, folks go, ‘Oh, it’s so nice they let the maid sit at the table with the family,’” says Williams.

Working with Brown, Williams says, allows him to bring his own experiences and ideas to the play as opposed to “living in a world that’s a flight of fancy. It’s doing a play rather than doing a quote-unquote diverse play.”

For Brown, historical plays get at the heart of his mission. “Over time, you talk to [black] actors who go to conservatories—be it Yale, Juilliard, whatever,” says Brown. “It’s certainly not intentional, but they’re asked to leave the core parts of their being at the door. They’re doing European plays about European ideas—roles where they can’t bring the full energy of their inner beings and intellectual outlooks on the characters. I figured, if I was going to be a playwright, which doesn’t make any money, I’d do it in the service of something. And that is to create roles for actors—black actors.”

Rohan Preston is the theatre critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


Interview with “Word of Mouth” on New Hampshire Public Radio

In February of 2013, Carlyle performed The Fula from America: An African Journey at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampsire. It was a fund-raising event for Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground, and was followed by a candelight procession to the site where the design for a memorial was unveiled.

While in New Hampshire, Virginia Prescott of New Hampshire Public News interviewed Carlyle.

Take a listen »