How Camille A. Brown Uses Theater to Capture Black Girl Joy

We’re living in the age of the Black Girl. If you haven’t heard by now, Black Girls Rock and they are taking over TV shows and magazine covers with their #BlackGirlMagic. At 36, choreographer Camille A. Brown still sees herself as a "Black Girl" and advocates for an expanded definition - and age range - of black girlhood.

"When we say girl I'm talking about a little girl but I'm also talking about my sister girl," she said. "It's about constantly living between your past and your present, who you are as a woman and who you were as a child and how much of that childlike aspect is still living inside of you."

In 2015, Brown debuted Black Girl: Linguistic Play, a production that highlights the childhood games, gestures and language of young black girls. The play brings on a dose of nostalgia with a routine that simulates double dutch, hand games, and the famed call and response game "Jig-a-low".  It's not just about girls playing, she said, it's about relationships and sisterhood.

Photo by Whitney Browne
Brown, a native of Queens, New York, is a talented modern dancer and choreographer who trained at LaGuardia High School of the Arts and University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She’s worked with notable names like The Ailey School and has danced and choreographed for numerous plays across the nation. But Brown truly shines with her own productions - under her company Camille A Brown and Dancers - where she uses dance to put a spotlight on cultural concepts of blackness, stereotypes and womanhood.   

It's this vision and acclaim that has made her the recent winner of the two prestigious awards: the Jacobs Pillow Dance Award and the 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship. She goes above and beyond the duties of choreographer with her productions, taking on the roles of dance historian, researcher and activist. Her stage plays become vehicles for telling underrepresented stories that not only empower and inspire black girls, but also educate, enlighten and sometimes perplex audiences of different racial backgrounds.

Black Girl: Linguistic Play was not the first production in which she used art and dance to tell these stories. In 2012, Brown debuted Mr. TOL E. RAncE, a play that tackles black humor, survival and stereotypes.

“I started seeing the images of black women on reality TV and not necessarily seeing a balance of the spectrum of who we are,” she said. “I remember just really being upset about it and wanting to talk about it through dance,” she said.

Mr. TOL E. RAncE used history to teach salient lessons about misrepresentation and prejudice in the present drawing inspiration from Dave Chappelle to W.E.B Dubois.

"I wanted it to look at what we had to tolerate, what we were forced to tolerate - especially during minstrelsy - and asking the question what are we tolerating now and why,” she said.

These lessons are often followed with discussion. Brown and her dancers interact with the audience, sometimes revealing deep-seated roots of society’s flaws. Last month, Brown performed an excerpt from Black Girl: Linguistic Play at Tedx Beacon Street. She shared an anecdote about a discussion her dancers had with white high school students during a preview of the play. When asked what they thought about black girls, all responded with negative stereotypes.
"... I thought what better way to prove that point than to use the thing that I use every day to communicate. To use my body in a world where black girls and black women's bodies are sexualized when black girls are treated as adults when they're only children…it mattered now more than ever to show the dimensions of my gestures and to show my humanity. And I went out and I danced my dance and I created and took back my safe space. "

For Brown, creative work draws heavily from personal experience - so negativity can cut deep. But she strives to ensure that her shows are safe spaces where everyone gets the chance to share their truth and walk away with a new understanding of blackness.

“I know that they are not trying to be offensive,” she said.  “They’re trying to share their story. And because we have people of all walks of life that are coming and sharing their stories and how they fit into this idea of stereotypes and perceptions, sometimes it’s hard for them to say their truth and hard for us to hear it.”

Brown continues her advocacy off the stage. In 2014, she began Black Girl Spectrum an initiative that promotes empowerment through dance. She teaches "girls" of all ages about African rhythms and social dance instilling pride in the black contribution to modern dance.

The dance industry deals with its own prejudices. In the mainstream, we are beginning to see changes, most notably, ballet dancer Misty Copeland becoming the first black female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. For Brown, this is a step in the right direction and an opportunity to achieve even more.

Photo By Whitney Browne

"I hope more attention is brought to choreographers and dancers who are engaged in dance of the African diaspora," she said. "African and African-American dance have made tremendous contributions to American dance and culture, but have not been acknowledged and honored the way they should be."

Brown is doing her part to make that hope a reality. In addition to the aforementioned plays, she is currently working on another production, to be titled Ink, which will dissect race and politics through hip hop culture. In a world that leaves so many faces out of the mainstream narrative, Brown is carving out a space for people to "see a black girl’s story through a black girl’s gaze.”

And that starts with understanding that girlhood lasts a lifetime.

Brianna Patterson is a student, journalist, creative writer and editorial intern at Tweet her at @Anna__Son

Photo: Camille A Brown (right) and dancer Catherine Foster during a performance of Black Girl: Linguistic Play (Photo by Christopher Duggan)