The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival is starting next week, and we are giving away two tickets to a show you do not want to miss.
Black!, by Michael Washington Brown, debuts at Magnetic 375 on Friday, 1/27 at 9pm and Sunday, 1/29 at 6pm. You can win tickets by commenting on our Facebook post with the link to this interview, and we’ll announce a winner on Sunday night at 9 pm.
The show presents four individuals who describe their experience with the word “black.” I recently sat down with Michael to discuss the creation of Black!, his hopes for its impact, and the ability of one person to tell the stories they don’t see being told.
Michael’s story is not your typical one, but that might just be what makes it typical. He was born and raised in England, moved to the US when he was 19, and has worked in theatre ever since. He’s currently living in Arizona, so that’s where we began:
You’re currently living in Arizona?
I’m living in Arizona. I was born in England and lived there until I was 19. I moved to California at age 19 and spent time there. I ended up getting involved in theatre and acting and doing a lot of work in the Bay Area and worked my way up the rungs, so to speak. What you realize very quickly is that there’s fantastic theatre in the Bay Area, but in order for you to work at the larger houses, there’s only so many. So clearly the next step was New York.
I was (in New York) in 2012. I was digesting theatre like it was going out of style. I happened to see a one-man show and it really struck me in a way that nothing else has, primarily because what it helped me to realize, this gentleman was performing an autobiographical piece on his upbringing, his parents, etc. It really connected with me. Part of the reason it connected me was that, as an artist and an actor, particularly a lot of times you’re telling someone else’s story. I’ve always thought ‘Well, why aren’t I seeing this?’Why is this out there and that out there?’ And when I saw that [show], it made it very crystal clear to me that if you aren’t seeing the type of story you want to see being told, then you have to tell them.
How did the idea for Black!, specifically, come about?
I have friends from all different backgrounds, all different ethnicities, and people often ask me, “What was it like growing up in England? What’s it like coming to America?” So, I’ve always told this story. I moved to the US in 1992. I’ve gone back home, and I’ve done a lot of traveling. There’s definitely some distinct things that I notice within people here who are considered black or African American. And then there’s distinct things from my family, (who are) from Jamaica and Barbados—the Caribbean. I was born in London, I’m the first generation born outside the Caribbean. I would often joke and tell people about situations, things that have come up, conversations I’ve had, ironic situations. People always laughed and said “I didn’t know that!” It seemed like that was happening in more succession.
I was watching a documentary on 60 Minutes, a segment on Africa about an application on a cellphone allowing people to start their own businesses. It took away the need to have a bank account, they could transact their services and currencies among themselves by sharing it on an app. I don’t know what it was, but it struck something in me. I opened my laptop and I wrote a synopsis based on a show where different people from the black community talk about their experience of what it’s like to be black. I wrote the synopsis clear as day. I thought, ‘whoa, what is this.’ It was like—am I gonna do this? So I just let go. From that moment to 6 weeks later, I had my first draft of Black!. It was interesting because, I say this to you with the most sincere truth, I don’t feel like I created Black!. I feel like Black! was visited upon me. The reason I say that is because these are experiences that I have witnessed, whether its direct or through somebody else. You cannot be a person of color, or, in my case, a black man, and have not related to some of the things I talk about in the show. What’s different is that my perspective visits upon people from different parts of the globe who are black. I don’t know if that’s been presented in the way it’s going to be in this show. My main component is to be respectful and authentic and truthful with the information that’s shared. I want to give these individual characters the respect that they deserve to honor their viewpoint. Of anything important to me in this show, it’s that. It’s that I’m serving these characters, and not the other way around.
You’re talking about a fascinating thread—the shared experience of being black, regardless of background, upbringing, language, and experiences. What has been your development of that idea (while creating the show)? What response have you received?