Working Towards A New Theater By, For And About Black Americans

Jun 19, 2014

Tyrone Brown outside ACT Theatre
Tyrone Brown outside ACT Theatre
Credit courtesy ACT Theatre

When Tyrone Brown was a kid, just six or seven years old, his mom took him to Seattle's 5th Avenue Theater for a performance of the long-running musical, "Annie."

"She actually just dropped me off at the theater and let me watch it by myself," Brown says.

He loved it. The youngster got it in his head that he wanted to perform the title role. Brown was already involved in musical theater; he thought if he practiced hard, the producers ("I didn't actually know what they were called then") could remake the role into "Danny": a young, black, male orphan. Why not?

Brown never made that dream come true, but he did grow up into a theater artist. And like the re-imagined "Danny," Brown wants to re-invent black theater, to push it beyond shows like "The Wiz," or even Lorraine Hansberry's award-winning "Raisin in the Sun."

Several years ago, Brown founded Brown Box Theater Company in Seattle, with the mission of staging shows by, about and for black audiences. He says he usually takes on three projects each year.

Now Brown is directing a new production of the New York hit "Passing Strange." It's a musical about a young black man's journey to becoming an artist; a story Brown understands from his own experience.

Brown says he has wanted to bring the show to Seattle ever since he saw a production at New York's Public Theater in 2007.

"I've been to New York, I've seen a lot of shows," Brown recalls, "but from the moment the music started, I was going, wow! This is pretty amazing."

Brown has partnered with new Seattle startup company Sidecountry Theatre and ACT Theatre's Central Heating Lab for this production. They warn audiences not to expect the kind of show tunes you'd find at "Annie." It's a grittier look at what it means to be a black man and an artist in America.

And that's a story Brown can relate to.