by Kathya Alexander
When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, Tyrone Brown was in Lesotho, an independent country of 2 million people completely surrounded by South Africa. As a volunteer for the Peace Corps, he was teaching English, life skills, and HIV/AIDS prevention to Lesotho elementary school students. But the Peace Corps decided to withdraw all their volunteers worldwide and send them home.
Born and raised in Seattle, Tyrone Brown, the founder and artistic director of Brownbox Theatre, credits his mother for introducing him to the arts when he was very young. Brown feels Seattle gave him more freedom and exposure to the arts that he wouldn’t have received, especially as a young Black male, had he grown up somewhere else. Still, being involved in the arts in a single-parent family had its challenges.
“I remember I was in the Northwest Boys Choir for a short period of time. I don’t remember a lot about the experience except for one thing. We had a big concert that was happening in downtown Seattle. And my mom couldn’t get me there. She said, ‘I don’t have money for bus fare. So you’re going to have to call somebody.’ It was a predominately white institution, a group of white boys basically. And I didn’t know those kids, who came from two-parent homes and had money. I was just so embarrassed.”
Despite her limited resources, Brown’s mother was determined to keep her children involved in the arts. They auditioned as a family for the now defunct Civic Light Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess, and Brown was cast as the lead child, Scipio. The production had an all-Black cast and was a huge event. Brown was in fifth grade and remembers the experience vividly.
“I remember that whole thing was wonderful. And that was when I fell in love with being a director. I was fascinated because Tawnya Pettiford-Wates was our director. And I remember seeing her and the Black music director (I forgot her name) doing these things that I didn’t know was called directing. I just knew that they were our leaders. And I was just fascinated.” Interestingly, the Civic Light Opera would later become Seattle Musical Theater and Brown would, for a while, serve as its artistic director.
Like everything about him, Brown’s route to a theater career was nontraditional. After serving in the first Gulf War, he took some theater classes, using his veteran’s benefits.
“Then I got into a theater program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas [UNLV], and they took 40 students to Scotland to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for five weeks. They do something like 500 plays from all over the world. That experience introduced me to the world of international theater.”
Being a student at UNLV also played a large part in getting Brown involved in social justice. “The theater world was very cliquish. The Black students were relegated to these menial roles. So I started butting heads with the Department. I was telling the few Black students, ‘You tell them you’re not going to be the servant any more.’ And that got around.”
When Brown got involved in student government as a representative for the Theater Department, that gave him access to funding. He decided to use $5,000 of the allocated $15,000 student government funds to start a student theater program. The Theater Department had always determined how the funding should be used, so Brown’s decision got him called to the dean’s office.
“And the first thing this white man said was, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’” As an older student, Brown wasn’t intimidated. “I just said, ‘This conversation is over.’ And I got up and walked over to the Office of Multicultural Affairs and reported him. And they ended up giving me the $5,000. But they didn’t want anything else to do with me after that.”
Brown changed his major to general studies, but ultimately ended up leaving UNLV. He became an interdisciplinary studies major at Western Washington University’s (WWU) Fairhaven College, getting a degree in African American theater and dance. He then came back to Seattle and started Brownbox, a theater company that targets an African American audience. He was working at Seattle University when Trayvon Martin was killed. That moment changed his life and his work.
“I had started getting a nervous tic. I started grinding my teeth. My dentist was the one who pointed it out to me. I was telling her that my jaw was aching and she said, ‘It could just be stress. Have you been stressed out lately?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And we didn’t go through it there but I was like, what I’m stressed out about is that they killed that boy down in Florida.”
Brown realized he had to do something. So he decided to join the protests in St. Louis after the murder of Michael Brown. “After going to where Michael Brown was killed, literally seeing it and putting things in perspective, being in that city helped me understand what happened and why it was so traumatic. For one, there was generational trauma here. A young Black body in August in the sun on the ground, Black people surrounded by police. And I realized this has been done before. A lynching. It was in this apartment complex, but it might as well have been a stadium with a body in the middle. There was like windows, windows, windows all the way around. And I was like, ‘Oh my God. He was in the middle of like a coliseum.’”
After Brown returned to Seattle, he knew he had to do more. So he decided that every Monday he was going to do something on Seattle University’s campus related to the Black Lives Matter movement and founded Moral Mondays at SU.
When Sybrina Fulton agreed to come speak to his group was when people started to really pay attention. “Because then people were like, Trayvon Martin’s mother is coming to campus? To Seattle University?” said Brown. “After that I started being seen as someone in Seattle who was involved in Black Lives Matter.”
Before Trayvon Martin’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, Brown had kept his art and activism pretty much separate, but that has changed over time.
“I hadn’t been in a position to bring those two things together. And it wasn’t like it was one thing, but I think it just naturally started happening. It started coming together in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement when I recognized my creative brain could bring some interesting things to the table around doing some BLM-related events in Seattle. And working at Seattle University, I had a place and a space to try these things out.”
Alongside Moral Mondays, another example of Brown’s art and activism is that for three years each April he held a symbolic Confederate-flag burning on campus. People were surprised and asked why he wanted to burn the flag, which Brown represented with white cotton to symbolize slavery. “No, we’re not giving any power to it,” Brown would answer. “We’re thinking outside the box. We’re going to get white sheets made of 100% cotton, and we’ll deconstruct them to look like what you would think of as the Confederate flag … Then we’re going to ritually burn it in front of the American flag each April at the same time that, in the South, they’re celebrating the Confederacy. And people will be able to come give speeches and things like that, and then we each tear a piece from the flag and symbolically put it into a flame and burn it to ashes.”
In addition to his activism, Brown still has a bucket list of plays that he wants to do. One is Porgy and Bess, an opera that will bring his theatrical experience full circle. Another is The Negro Passion Play to honor his mother’s Christian faith, but set during the Civil Rights Movement. And Fiddler on the Roof. Whatever he does, it will be Black-centric. “I didn’t have the emotional creative maturity to think that way before, so I would separate the two. Now there is no distinction. If I do Fiddler on the Roof, I’m giving you this completely different play that speaks to Black people, and I had never thought of Fiddler on the Roof like that. I never would have thought to set it at a Black family reunion. But it works! And it’s so powerful. So that’s the difference.”
Seattle can sometimes be derelict towards its native sons and daughters, reserving recognition for a favored few. To that, Brown remarks, “I think that the question of recognition as this thing outside myself; I don’t know if it’s important to me any more. I have recognized for myself that I’ve done a lot and have congratulated myself. I’ll reflect on certain things and be like, ‘You know, I did the damn thing!’”
And perhaps, one day, Seattle will finally give him the recognition that he deserves.
Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.
📸 Featured Image: Tyrone Brown at the spot where Michael Brown was killed in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo courtesy of Tyrone Brown.
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