|powerful theatrical solo performance||expertly guided dialogue|
Acting Black attendees will:
- Gain understanding of the roots of American racism and its ongoing impact on institutions and individuals today
- Increase awareness of personal bias
- Practice engaging in tough, productive conversation
- Generate ideas and motivation to make workplace and community environments more inclusive
Bring Acting Black to your group or organization for a provocative, live performance and discussion. Acting Black is available to be performed for individual groups and public, private and nonprofit organizations and institutions. Each performance is followed by a facilitated discussion to get the audience talking openly and honestly about race and diversity. For questions or booking inquiries: Email carlylebrown[at]aol[dot]com
Audience Advisory: Recommended for Mature Audiences (16+) due to content and language.
Performance run time: 60 minutes, no intermission. Followed by a 30-minute discussion.
Stay tuned for upcoming public performances!
Part spoken word, part stand-up comedy, part Ted Talk complete with PowerPoint presentation, Acting Black is a 60-minute solo show created to inspire open and honest conversations about race and diversity. Using the power of art to investigate difficult concepts Acting Black takes us to the roots of American racism and its consequences for all of us by exploring the evolution of the Black stereotype, tracing the birth of its beginning from a single individual on a specific night in Louisville, Kentucky in 1828 to the racial conflicts we still endure to this day. Acting Black provides its audience with a context and the critical tools to engage in the most important part of its presentation and that is the facilitated discussion that follows the performance, usually lasting for 30 to 45 minutes. This discussion may be customized and structured in specific ways to meet the needs of sponsoring organizations and entities.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” –James Baldwin
Writer/performer Carlyle Brown is a playwright-artist-thinker whose body of work through the years continues to bring fresh and riveting insights into the experience of race in America. His presentation is a performance with PowerPoint projections that demystifies the complex, systemic structure of American racism to reveal its psychic boundaries and social impact. Thoughtful, provocative, deep diving he encourages the audience discussion toward personal and actionable solutions. Carlyle also offers follow-up discussions, workshops, structured conversations and extended programing. Acting Black is available for individual groups and public, private and nonprofit organizations and institutions.
“Coming out of the Philando Castile moment here in the Twin Cities, we thought we need to figure out a forum to have a community conversation around this. And so it came to Carlyle Brown and Acting Black. This is a way to have this playwright-artist-thinker in the room with us, and a piece of art is made and shared and a community conversation (happens) around it.” –Joe Haj, Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater, quoted in The Journal
Attendees of the presentation and participants in the facilitated discussions have stated:
“Acting Black investigates the social construct of race and provides a way to talk about issues in a context in which it is safe to be uncomfortable. This experience is not about guilt but about understanding.” “Acting Black is a generous, provocative work that has the potential to be a change-making kind of performance in certain settings.” “Acting Black invited me to zoom in and look at race and racism from an angle I had not considered. I like how, with humor, he stretched my thinking. He helped people in the audience talk about things they didn’t know they could talk about. He skillfully used juxtaposition as he laid the groundwork for us to ask ourselves, ‘What if I did nothing?’”
Audience Advisory: Recommended for Mature Audiences (16+) due to content and language.
Performance run time: 60 minutes. No intermission.
Written and performed by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Noel Raymond
Lighting design by Mike Wangen
first presented at the Southern Theater in 2015
Change is Uncomfortable: How Carlyle Brown Invites Conversation on Race
an interview with Carlyle Brown by Kelsye Gould, The Design Gym, July 2019
When our quarterly theme of uncomfortable conversations was announced, I knew I wanted to talk to Carlyle Brown, a playwright and performer whose work explores race and American identity. With his play, Acting Black, Carlyle has created an intentional container for inviting uncomfortable conversations about race in America. He was gratuitous enough to chat with me about his work, the role of discomfort in fostering change, and how he keeps difficult conversations productive. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity:
KG: Tell me about your journey of becoming a playwright and performer.
CB: I was a captain of 19th century sailing vessels for a long time, and I decided, for some odd reason, I had an affinity for writing plays. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I was interested in the theatre because it’s a good venue for conversation. It has sort of a democratic nature—people in space collectively agreeing upon what they see that’s before them.
A few years ago, you wrote a solo show called Acting Black, which you have since performed across the U.S. How would you describe the show?
It’s part TED talk, part comedy—and it’s designed to get people to talk about race and diversity. It’s a narrative story, from my point of view, about how we got to the way we really are around race. It’s a story that strongly suggests that the whole construct of race is a product of the white imagination.
Where did the idea for Acting Black come from?
Acting Black came from just being sick and tired of the narrative we have about race in this country. It had its first showing in 2015, and it was in response to all the police shootings going on all over the country. It seemed to me like a pattern was going on in the media where, in the conversation between the interviewer and, say, the black mother of the victim, the interviewer took over the victimization. She became victimized by the victim’s story. And then you have that throughout history. The explanation of racism and colonialism was that the oppressor took on all the roles of the narrative—spectator, victim, judge, and avenger—except for the perpetrator, and the person who was the “other” was the perpetrator. I came to this epiphany about how the narrative was always the same, and race was seen as totally binary. I mean, just look at the myth of American society, which other people view as history. It all makes a perverse kind of sense in this stale narrative. The narrative is created by whites to maintain supremacy, and it just becomes embedded in our consciousness.
And so, Acting Black just sort of asks the real questions about all of these things. The piece proposes to white people that everything you know—all of these stereotypes and images that you have of black people—are products of a white imagination. You are responsible for these images and these ideas. And I ask, “Where is this coming from? Why do you imagine that? Are you aware that these things don’t exist anywhere else but in your imagination?” And that’s sort of the context in which we begin to engage in conversation.
What role does feeling uncomfortable play in the show?
Well, race is uncomfortable. The whole thing is uncomfortable. As an artist, I feel my job is to make it more uncomfortable. That’s kind of my solution to “the elephant in the room.” We unveil the elephant and try to make people see the elephant.
How do you invite the audience into a space where—not only is it okay for them to feel uncomfortable, but that is the point? How do you get people to come and be prepared to be uncomfortable?
One of the things that I believe is that discomfort is a sign of readiness for change. If you don’t have discomfort, then you don’t give a shit. If you’re here, if you show up for something that’s called Acting Black, you’re kind of ready to have a go at that on some level. So what I try to do is to encourage that, saying, “Hey look—you came here, you might as well get your money’s worth.”
The second half of the performance is a story about a group of people who are trying to have a conversation about race, and it’s an interesting kind of model of what the possibilities are. Things can go wrong because of the human things people want to do. They don’t want to make a mistake, so when someone makes a mistake, they’re so glad it wasn’t them. There are many things that people bring into the conversation that are modeled in this play, and some of that—if not all—seeps into the room, and people behave accordingly.
So you’re sort of priming the audience by showing them what it looks like to have an uncomfortable conversation and be vulnerable to then do that, themselves.
Right. There’s a character in that scene, a retiree, who keeps trying, keeps prevailing. At the end of the performance, when I invite the audience to think about what they just learned and offer to facilitate a conversation about it, I refer to that character. I ask, “Is there not a retiree among you who will raise your hand?” and they all laugh in recognition of their own discomfort about standing up in front of a group of people and talking about their feelings.
As a facilitator, how do you make sure the conversation stays productive and doesn’t derail into attack and more stereotypes?
In my case, the first part that deals with this is the performance itself. The audience develops a relationship with me. They believe what I’m saying. I have some authority and authenticity, so there’s some level of trust based on following dramatic laws. When I promise something, I deliver, and if I conceal something, I reveal it. After I finish the performance, I ask the audience, “What are you going to do to stop this offensive scar which is racism in America?” and then I give them a challenge: I want them to talk to each other as though they were talking to me. In some ways, giving them a task is the strategy, and they do it. I can call on them and they’ll follow the rules. So that kind of keeps it productive, and I try to keep them honest.
You mentioned that discomfort is a sign of readiness for change, and that by showing up there is already a willingness to participate, but does that mean this show is not for people who aren’t “there” yet? And how do we engage those people?
One of the things that I have to do as a sort of facilitator is to be careful about people’s readiness in general. I can’t tell them to do or think anything aside from following the rules of the game. My role is to keep the environment safe and honest. If I’m going to challenge them to solve the problem, then I have to trust them to solve the problem to whatever degree they can in the 45 minute conversation. When the audience starts talking to each other, they find that difficult. They have trouble finding a language to talk about race. People want to talk about it, but they are scared. My superpower is having the language.
What advice do you have for people to lean into uncomfortable conversations in their personal lives?
Really ask yourself why you’re feeling uncomfortable. You must feel uncomfortable for a reason, so why ignore it? Explore it and investigate it. It’s about change. Change is kinda uncomfortable, but that’s life.
REVIEW: Acting Black
by Stephanie Kwong, phenoMNal twin cities, May 20, 2018
Acting Black is a one man show written and performed by Carlyle Brown that is one part presentation, one part open forum. The topic is about how black people have been portrayed in American entertainment for the past 200 years and how that portrayal shapes and affects modern day racism. The show is produced for a white audience, with the goal of educating and providing the missing context for many persistent stereotypes.
Starting with the origin of minstrel shows, and culminating with the modern day appropriations of black culture, Brown’s show highlights the ways in which the concept of race, and the ideas of “white” and “black,” were used to manipulate the fortunes of blacks as well as white. Acting Black describes itself as part-comedy, however, it is not a stand up routine. As Brown explains, he tells the story with a sense of humor, because the alternative is to scream and shout in a way that would fulfill the worst of the stereotypes. His performance is in itself a comment on the way blacks are perceived by even the most well-meaning white folks. And, from a Caucasian perspective, I would not say I found the show funny or laughable, at least not when you think about the number of people impacted by this ongoing issue, but it is certainly insightful and important.
Acting Black provides a wonderful opportunity receive a history lesson and dive into black perspectives in a time when tensions run high. As with other shows that have been produced in the area over the past few years–We Are Proud to Present…, The Parchman Hour, and A People’s History of the United States–Brown’s underlying message is that, race is a construct that was ultimately designed to divide people with much more in common than they realize in order to maintain control over both groups.
Brown uses the last half hour of the show to encourage members of the audience to talk with each other. Forced to confront our own internal reactions, and those of our peers, the realization that there is much more work to do comes swiftly and not without difficulty. This is not a problem that will go away in its own. But the sooner we all know our history, the better we can make our future.
Acting Black Review
by Arthur Dorman, Talkin’ Broadway, Sept, 2017
Carlyle Brown’s Acting Black was first presented two years ago at the Southern Theater, had numerous return mountings in the Twin Cities, outstate Minnesota (at the Great River Shakespeare Festival), and on stages in Ohio and New Hampshire. This week, the production returned for just three performances at the Illusion Theater.
Acting Black is not really a play. The prolific Brown has written and performed in plays for one actor, in which he takes on characters and puts himself in a narrative context. Not this time. In the first half of Acting Black, Brown appears as a lecturer, using a PowerPoint presentation to explain the notion of “acting black,” its origins, as framed by the entertainment industry, and the scars it has caused and continues to inflect on American society. His lecture is performed without notes, very polished, laced with humor, anecdotes and descriptive imagery, but the man on stage is not playing a character—he is quite himself, speaking directly to us, the audience.
Brown uses the far left-leaning French writer Jean Genet’s play The Blacks: A Clown Show as a starting point. Genet, a white man, wrote the play for a cast of thirteen black actors. However, five of those actors play the parts of white people, whitening their face to take on those roles. The play, then, has eight black actors “acting black” and five black actors “acting white.” Where, then, did white people’s perception of what it means to “act black” come from? Brown pinpoints an exact time and place this happened: the place, Louisville, Kentucky, the year, 1828, and the person, white entertainer Thomas Dartmouth (Big Daddy) Rice, who adapted the tunes and dance typical of elder black men, blackened his face, and had a huge hit with the song and dance “Jump Jim Crow.” The minstrel show was born.
The form caught on big time, cited as America’s first homegrown form of entertainment. White actors in blackface portrayed blacks as foolish, shiftless, gullible, and without morality. Runaway slaves were depicted as regretful, missing their gracious plantation homes and kind masters. The “Negro Dandy,” a hyper-sexualized city-slicker, was to be kept far away from white women. After the Civil War, there was interest in having black performers appear in minstrelsy, but they often did not have dark enough faces—the white men had darkened their faces to be black as coal, with chalk white makeup to highlight thick, broadly smiling lips. Thus, black performers blackened their own faces to meet white audiences’ expectations of “acting black.” This carried into the 20th century, with stereotyped black characters in popular culture. The conception of “acting black” expanded to also include crime, drug use and violence, images that promote fear, distrust and profiling on the part of whites and leading us to the crossroads at which society sits today. A line Brown shared from the work of W.E.B Du Bois captures the overall effect: “Under these circumstances, black is not a color but a condition.”
Once the lecture concludes, we move without pause into the second half of Acting Black, a conversation among the audience members, which Brown facilitates. He invites us to talk about our response to what we just heard, what we learned, and what we will do about it. As a ground rule, he asks those audience members who are persons of color to withhold comment. His assertion is that race is a “white people’s problem.” Of course, people of color have to deal with the problem, but the problem lies in the hands of the whites. Therefore, he wants to give white audience members (I would guess that was 90% of the audience at the performance I attended) an opportunity to deal with one another around this issue. The program suggests a conversation of 30 to 45 minutes. Ours lasted a full hour, and ended only because the theater staff needed to shut down our space.
The discussion was a mix of childhood remembrances, rants against current political conditions (not surprisingly, the audience appears to be of one mind on this), and examples of individual acts of good-will toward the “others.” Brown shared an observation that there was a lot of talking about our feelings, but none about how we, collectively, might tear down this social framework, abstractions created by the need for one group of people to convince themselves they not only have the upper hand over another group, but deserve to have that upper hand. He challenged those who believe that, albeit society is racist, they are not racist, stating that would be like swimming in the ocean and not getting wet.
Given the ongoing tension in race relations—which some would call a crisis—in our nation, it is likely that Carlyle Brown will continue to remount this provocative work, hopefully reaching audiences with less homogeneous ideas than were at the Illusion Theater yesterday. This is theater blended with community dialogue, laced with soul-searching. It is not a show, nor a story, but an invitation to deconstruct our reality, imagine alternatives, and strategies to achieve those alternatives. A 90-minute or two-hour session among like-minded strangers will not in itself get the job done, but it is a step, and, as the cliché goes, every journey begins with a first step.
Acting Black, a production of Carlyle Brown & Company in association with Illusion Theater, was performed September 27 through September 29, 2017, in Minneapolis MN. For information about Illusion Theater call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org. For information about Carlyle Brown & Company, go to carlylebrownandcompany.org.
Writer and Performer: Carlyle Brown; Director: Noel Raymond; Projection Design: Barb Brown; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Rachael Lantow; Production Stage Manager: Sarah Salisbury.
The Truth Behind Acting Black
by Becki Iverson, Compendium, Aug 8, 2016
This stunning performance perfectly depicts the heart of our race problems in America
I’ve often heard people question why art matters. When we have small budgets for necessities such as paving roads or education or clean water, why should we make room to fund the arts as well?
It’s always hard to answer that question well (even though I powerfully believe supporting the arts means supporting the essence of humanity), but now I know: all I need to do is point such naysayers to Carlyle Brown and particularly his work Acting Black. Acting Black just completed a brief two-day run at the Guthrie in which all the performances were free and sold out. Held by the Guthrie in response to the Philando Castille shooting and larger Black Lives Matter movement, Acting Black was perfectly poised to spark a necessary, hard conversation about racism in Minnesota. As Artistic Director Joseph Haj said:“In light of recent local and national events, we gathered as a staff to discuss how we might be most useful to our community in these uncertain times. Carlyle’s performance quickly rose to the surface of that discussion. The combination of local artists and the material seemed fitting and appropriate for this moment in our world. We are proud to present this powerful theater piece, and hope it will serve as a springboard to conversation and community building.”And what a springboard it was.
Carlyle Brown masterfully delivered the presentation in a one man performance that quietly seeped through the audience’s psyche. He combined an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject with Morgan Freeman’s friendly, authoritative demeanor to deliver a powerful history of racist stereotypes and their full perversion of representing minorities in every aspect of society, from advertising to books to television to movies and beyond.
Acting Black combines the best traditions of monologue, historical research, PBS specials and the wisdom of folklore into a densely packed one-hour long performance. As Carlyle said it’s really intended to educate a white audience, but also engaged many of the people of color in the room. The focus is mostly on representations of African Americans in media but also spreads to include other minorities such as Native Americans, Latinx, Asian immigrants and more. The most striking finding of Acting Black is how specifically we can trace the origins of America’s racist past. Specific damaging stereotypes such as blackface and the Jim Crow dance go straight to 1829; if we had a time machine we could prevent them from being invented at all. It is incredible to see how these powerful, negative stereotypes were able to spread so widely in an age before internet or even telephones could spread the news. That these stereotypes continue to exist to this day is a shameful reality that we must all work to fix.
And where do we start? That was the focus of the after-performance discussion, which pushed a group of normally shy Minnesotans to reveal some deep fears about our current state. The frank questions and answers were a necessary push to encourage those of us with privilege – who are white, straight, middle or upper class, have higher education – to leverage our privilege to a useful benefit. What do we, who are so well positioned in society, really have to lose by supporting change? Many solutions were offered, the most powerful being to stop the polite “Minnesota Nice” reaction to racist conversation. We must hold each other to a higher standard, and we must start with ourselves and those around us: our families and friends. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but until the bodies of our brown brothers and sisters are safe, we cannot stop. In the immortal words of Viktor Frankl:
You may of course ask whether we really need to refer to “saints.” Wouldn’t it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.So, let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense:Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.
Acting Black was a perfectly poised exposition of the importance of using art to explain difficult concepts. It provided an educational platform to spark meaningful progress on some devastating issues facing us today, and I can only hope the Guthrie offers this show again and continues their community gatherings series as planned. Acting Black was a magnificent offering in the wake of Philando Castille’s shooting; thank you, Guthrie, for offering that up.
Acting Black was first presented at the Southern Theater, June 1 & 8, 2015. Subsequent performances include:
- Dreamland Arts – March 10-26, 2016
Central State University – April 1, 2016
The Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theatre – August 5 & 6, 2016 (part of the Singular Voices/Plural Perspectives series)*
Great River Shakespeare – August 9, 2016
- Minnesota Theatre Alliance Statewide Conference – August 10, 2016
- The Music Hall, Portsmouth, NH – October 1, 2016
- The Illusion Theater – October 17, 2016
- The Illusion Theater – May 18 – 20, 2017
- The Illusion Theater – September 27 – 29, 2017
- Hennepin County Diversity & Inclusion Division – October 11, 2017
- City of Minneapolis Office of Equity & Inclusion – November 14, 2017
Saint Mary’s University – January 15, 2018
Hennepin Technical College – February 28, 2018
Virginia Tech – March 14, 2018
- LAB at Lowry in Downtown St. Paul – May 18 – 25, 2018
Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH October 15, 2018
The King Arts Complex, Columbus, OH, October 17, 2018
Overcoming Racism Conference, St. Paul, MN November 3, 2018
Plymouth Congregational Church, January 26, 2019
Bemidji State University, February 25, 2019
Myles Reif Performing Arts Center, Grand Rapids, MN, September 10, 2019
Hennepin County Project Diversity, Bloomington, MN, October 2, 2019
Technical needs required for Acting Black are a projection screen appropriate for your space and a projector with VGA cable to connect to an adapter to an iPad which runs the PowerPoint.