Tony award-nominated choreographer Camille A. Brown is making history as the first Black woman to both direct and choreograph a Broadway show in 65 years. Brown will direct the upcoming production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow is Enuf, producers of the show Nell Nugent, Ron Simons and Kenneth Teaton announced.
Black playwright Ntozake Shange wrote the play as a series of poems and dances to highlight the survival stories of seven women dealing with racism and sexism in society. The play first debuted on Broadway in 1976 and returned to New York 43 years later.
“I’m extremely thrilled and honored to helm this new production of For Colored Girls…,” Brown said in a statement. “It’s an amazing feeling to bring this seminal show back to Broadway 45 years after it opened at the Booth Theatre on Sept. 15, 1976,” Brown said. “I look forward to diving into the divine Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem and celebrating her legacy.”
Brown, who has choreographed for major Broadway shows like Choir Boy, A Street Car Named Desire and Once on This Island, will be making her Broadway directorial debut with this production. She already choreographed a revival of For Colored Girls in 2019 at The Public Theater off-Broadway. “It is an honor to help usher the return of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking work to Broadway under the direction and choreography of Camille A. Brown, who is herself blazing a new path on Broadway as the first Black woman in more than 65 years taking on this dual role,” said Simons, one of the producers. “I am quite confident that the ancestors and Ntozake’s spirit are lifted.”
Brown, who grew up and still lives in Queens, New York, has over the years been performing locally and across the world, sharing stories and dialogues about culture, race and identity. She’s been doing this mainly through her NYC-based dance company CABD, which she founded in 2006.
“CABD is known for an introspective approach to cultural themes through visceral movement and socio-political dialogues. Camille A. Brown leads her dancers through excavations of ancestral stories, encouraging each dancer to embrace their unique embodiment of the artistic vision and gestural vocabulary,” the company’s website says.
But Brown’s journey to becoming a dancer, director and probably one of the most sought-after choreographers on Broadway has not been easy. Growing up, she said she was “teased tremendously” for speaking and for her voice and the way it sounds. “And everyone’s entry point to their power is not always speech, is not always using their voice. So dance was really something that I found where I could be myself, and dance was really a way that I felt that I could best communicate,” she told NPR.
A graduate of the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Brown said she started dancing right in her living room as a little girl. She often watched a lot of Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos and tried to copy what they were doing and run the routine over and over again, she said. She also followed her mother, who loved musicals, to the library. At the library, they would take out some videos of musicals, Brown recalled.
“She introduced me to musical theater and that world, and I would just memorize them,” Brown said of her mother.
By age four, her mom had signed her up for ballet and tap classes. She loved it but by age 13, she began hearing talks about what the ideal dancer’s body should look like. And she began growing increasingly worried because she felt she didn’t fit in. “Yeah. It’s sad because I was maybe 11 or 13 or something where I was told, oh, you have to lose weight, or I was put on a diet. I was told to go see the nutritionist. I mean, I was eating salads every day.”
In spite of the challenges, Brown “forced herself” to keep dancing all through high school and into college. And that was when she discovered choreography through composition classes. Brown was told that she could make up her own dances and really find her own creative identity. And that is exactly what she needed.
“I think that was the first time dance was a form of survival,” she told NPR. “And finding choreography and really understanding that it was a way for me to share my voice when I didn’t have any other way to do that really helped me get through those hard times and continue to find and sustain the love of dance and constantly tap into that little girl that was always trying to make up things to the video.”
Today, Brown is a prolific choreographer who has received multiple accolades and awards including a Guggenheim Award, Doris Duke Artist Award, United States Artists Award, Bessie Award, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, Audelco Awards, Princess Grace Awards and a New York City Center Award. In 2019, she received a Tony nomination for choreographing Choir Boy, making her the first black woman to be nominated for the category in over two decades (Marlies Yearby was nominated for “Rent” in 1996).
And the choreographer and dancer, who is in her early 40s, is almost always busy with various projects. But she said all those projects have pushed her to become a better leader. With her background as a clarinetist, she “utilizes musical composition as storytelling and makes a personal claim on history through the lens of a modern Black female perspective.”
People can’t also get over the social dance class her company members lead for the community. “Social dance for social change is reclaiming Black narratives, giving African Diaspora culture its rightful place in American culture, fostering learning and creativity and spreading the joy of dance,” Brown wrote on her website. “It aims to create safe spaces for healing and connection and a creative environment for leadership building and consciousness raising.”
For Colored Girls will be presented in 2022. Brown’s role in the production has been welcomed by many considering the lack of diversity in Broadway and off-Broadway shows. People of color in the industry have also shared some racist experiences while working on Broadway productions.
The last Black woman to both direct and choreograph on Broadway was Katherine Dunham, who directed and choreographed her dance company in a three-act dance revue at the Broadway Theater in November 1955.