Camille A. Brown describes her style of dance as “simply being Camille.”
However, her moves are anything but simple, and her two Tony Award nominations for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf prove they are a big hit.
Brown is also making history as the first black woman in 67 years to direct and choreograph a play on Broadway. For Colored Girls marks her debut as a Broadway director.
Previously, audiences caught Brown’s astounding work when she choreographed Once on This Island and Choir Boy, the latter of which earned her a Tony nomination in 2019.
She is also the founder and artistic director of the acclaimed dance company Camille A. Brown and Dancers, and has worked on Metropolitan Opera productions of Porgy and Bess and Fire Shut Up in My Bones.
Brown has put her stamp on screen work, as well; she choreographed the Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and the lauded “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.”
Brown is now looking forward to the Tony Awards on June 12th (her black-tie attire admittedly remains a mystery, even to her!). After that she’ll collaborate with Wynton Marsalis in summer project.
She spoke with The New York Independent about a zest for dance that led to an impactful, exciting career and the significance of For Colored Girls in the current theatrical landscape.
New York Independent: From where did you get your passion for dance?
Camille A. Brown: I have a small voice, and I was teased for speaking out, so I was really nervous about doing things like class participation. For someone else, answering small questions might be simple, but for me it was like moving a mountain. I was so nervous about having my voice be heard, so dance was a way for me to create a safe space for myself and communicate how I was feeling.
NYI: Was there a specific moment when you realized that dance would be such an integral part of your life?
CB: My mom introduced me to dance and the idea of this whole new way of expression. I loved it and just wanted to be a part of it.
NYI: You have such a unique style of choreography. How would you describe it?
CB: I’m glad that my style is something that you can identify. I’m influenced by a lot of genres. It’s hard for me to describe what it is other than saying it’s simply Camille. It’s who I am. It has my creative identity and the things that I love, which included my experiences. I enjoy challenging myself within the genres and looking at what that means. Then I complicate it for myself.
NYI: For Colored Girls is expressed so vividly through dance. How did the story originally speak to you, and how did you decide on the best way to approach it in its latest Broadway incarnation?
CB: You should go with what you feel you want to lead with, and I wanted to lead with dance. The thing about Ntozake’s [Shange] work, specifically For Colored Girls, is that she created a choreo-poem where both dance and text co-exist.
That was what I found so beautiful about it. With my concert dance work, it’s a little less about the text. Here, I had the opportunity to take a lot of my approach to concert dance and implement it. This work provides such an opportunity for dance to lead that I was just really excited to do that inside of this show.
NYI: The many different colors, shapes, sizes and abilities of your performers is so beautiful. Describe the casting process for the show.
CB: I was interested in finding unique people and feel like they could hold many genres. I see the colors representing vessels and the idea is that the people are able to truly embody the text. I was looking for people that could do that through both movement and text so that we could truly believe that these are known feelings in their bodies and in their words, too.
NYI: What does it mean for you to be in this monumental position of being the first black woman to direct and choreograph in so many years….and then to be nominated for Tony Awards on top of it?
CB: When you say that someone like you hasn’t done something in 67 years, it automatically makes it that it’s not just about you, it’s about the people that paved the way for you so you could have this opportunity to do it. It gives me an opportunity to lift up people like Katherine Dunham, who was the first Black woman to direct and choreograph on Broadway.
I wasn’t even born when she did that! Now I can also highlight some of the other Black female director/choreographers that I know. I direct and choreograph for my own company, but I didn’t know that I would ever have an opportunity to do that in the theater world because I didn’t see it!
When I was going into it, I had so much fear because I didn’t want to disappoint. Finally, I thought, ‘Camille, just go in and do YOU. That’s how you honor the people that have come before you. You do the best that you can. It’s not about trying to please anyone, it’s about making sure that you do the best that you can because that’s the opportunity that they gave you.’ It feels tremendous to have so much fear and then on the other side of that to receive these nominations. I never would have imagined it.
NYI: What was your goal for yourself as you began to mold your career?
CB: My mom introduced me to musical theater, so we watched the Tony Awards every year. When I started theater in 2011, my goal was to just book one show. I knew it was male-dominated, and I knew that not many Black female choreographers were highlighted or working in this arena. For me to have not just one job but many jobs, and then those jobs lead to me choreographing and also directing is just a trajectory I didn’t even think about!
NYI: What have you learned about yourself through working on For Colored Girls? How have you grown?
CB: The takeaway is that I am stronger than I think I am. Sometimes I wondered if I was ready for this. I knew it was happening now, but was I truly ready to do this? You just have to believe and push through the fear and do you. Regardless of what happens, make sure that people see you on the stage, because that’s the most important thing. You can’t control whether people like it or not, but you can control whether you like it or not. You should feel good about the vision that you put on the stage.
NYI: How might this show change theater going forward?
CB: I hope it continues to challenge the landscape. We had seven Black women on a theater stage together, and I hope that there will be more opportunities to see stories like that. It’s a Black female playwright, so hopefully it continues to push the importance and the need of having Black female voices on Broadway and provide more opportunities for director/choreographers of color.