Sightlines: Playwright Carlyle Brown

A Reflection on the Beginning

Written by Carlyle Brown

Carlyle Brown, playwright and artistic director of Carlyle Brown and Company, is a prolific writer, sharp thinker, and friend. His plays have been produced all over the country, in houses big and small, and right here locally. He also produces his own work through his theatre company. Here, Carlyle shares his thoughts on Twin Cities theatre with us in this month’s Sightlines.

Carlyle Brown in THERAPY AND RESISTANCE; photo by Charissa Uemura

Carlyle Brown in THERAPY AND RESISTANCE; photo by Charissa Uemura

My first professional theater production was with Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul in 1986-87 season directed by Artistic Director Lou Bellamy.  The play was The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show, it was a beautiful production and it is among my most favorite to this day.  The set, designed by Ken Evans, was a 19th century railroad Pullman car sitting on wheels that rested, paused on railroad tracks as if it would race across the stage at any moment.  The visible interior of the Pullman car, with its bunk beds, sofa chairs, and wood stove, where almost exactly as I had waxed on about in the stage directions creating a cluttered, enclosed sense of entrapment. Among the cast members were James Craven, James A. Williams, Marion McClinton and Terry Bellamy.  The acting was fierce and fearless.  I remember on opening night I was in the theater lobby with Lou waiting as my play was about to begin.  We were holding for some reason or other.  I asked Lou two questions.  First, where were all the black people?  Lou said simply, “This is Minnesota.”  And then I asked him what were we waiting for?  And Lou said, “We’re waiting for the wind to come from Minneapolis.”  Apparently Leo Marcus Whitebird, the sound designer had a device that would create the atmosphere of the swirling icy wind in Hannibal, Missouri in the winter of 1895 and he was late driving it over from Minneapolis.  The next day theater critic Peter Vaughan wrote a rave review in the Star Tribune and the next morning Lou and I had breakfast.  He wanted to bring me back, to write another play and he wanted to do it next season.  The subject he suggested was a story about the African Company, the first African-American theater company in America, and their infamous production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1821.  Pretty heady stuff and a bit daunting for a guy who had just opened his first professional play, but it was an offer not to be refused.  

I wrote most of The African Company presents Richard III in the guest apartment in the basement of Lou’s suburban home with his wife Colleen leaving my meals on a tray on the floor by the door.  I had never done that kind of concentrated writing before.  It was hard and I was always being haunted by the ghost of my recent success, Little Tommy Parker.  The African Company opened the next season and the acting was not so fierce and fearless as it was before and it was clear to everyone, myself included, that it was because they had nothing to be fierce and fearless about.  Watching that production, it was all I could do to keep myself from leaping out of my seat and screaming, “Stop!  Stop!  Please stop!  Somebody just shoot me!”   Those two productions back to back, one a success, the other a failure, were the best thing that ever happen to me.  I learned a great deal.  I forged creative relationships that would last over two decades.  But most importantly Penumbra had provided me with the opportunity of seeing my ideas realized on stage at the infancy of my career and opened the door to a professional life in the theater.  Little Tommy Parker went on to be produced by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1991.  After a vigorous rewrite Arena Stage mounted the second production of African Company the following year in 1992.  Since that time not a year has gone by without at least one or two productions of African Company being performed by a professional or community theatre, a university or college and even churches somewhere in this country for the last 24 years.     

At the time I came to Penumbra there was a particular confluence of people that created a Penumbra look and style that accommodated a broad range of extraordinary African American theatrical artists.  There was Laurie Carlos with her White Chocolate for My Father; Generations of the Dead and King of Coons by Michael Henry Brown, Waiting in Vain by Rebecca Rice, Marion McClinton’s direction of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman was as raw and real as when it first appeared off-Broadway.  And then of course there was that rising star August Wilson who was then still living in St. Paul.  It was an ongoing master class in African-American theater where black artists had a safe place to express ourselves without the stigmatic spectator of the “other”.

My next production at Penumbra was Buffalo Hair in 1994.  Aside from being a stunning production that became a platform for engaging discussions between Native and African American communities, it was the occasion that I became acquainted with the brilliant lighting designer Mike Wangen.  At the end of the first act five black Buffalo soldiers of the United States 10th Calvary are about to come under attack by a war party of Southern Cheyenne.  Just as the first shot is about to fire, Mike has the sync dripping with red light as if the sky was bleeding.  It was a beautiful, affecting, disturbing use of light that reflected and reinforced the bloody tragedy of what was taking place on stage.  I have collaborated with Mike ever since and I would say we have been a positive influence on each of our artistic practices.  Or at least I’ve been greatly influenced by him.  After all we are both storytellers in the theater doing the same thing, and that is to reveal something, to shine a light on the subject.

All three of these plays were developed in collaboration with the Playwrights’ Center and supported by the Jerome Foundation.  The Playwrights’ Center has been a mainstay in my writing life.  The reason that the Playwrights’ Center is such an invaluable resource for its writers is that the development process is writer driven and they have at their disposal the most amazing actors you will find anywhere.  They are the lifeblood of the theater community.  Twin-Cities actors are talented, smart and generous and their acting is fierce and fearless, exactly what’s needed exploring a new play.  They jump in with both feet and if they can’t make it work then you’ve got some rewriting ahead of you or else you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.  I serve on the boards of The Playwrights’ Center and the Jerome Foundation as a way of giving back and because I know personally how the great work they do can make a big difference in an artist’s life.

After Buffalo Hair I moved to the Twin Cities with a McKnight National Residency Fellowship and went on to work in and make my living in regional theaters across the country and internationally.  I have had the good fortune to have had many of my plays realized and whatever success I might have it all goes back to those early days at Penumbra Theatre.