September 28th, 2015

Behind the curtains: Tamara Brown (The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God)

Tamara Brown


Tamara Brown plays Martha/Ancestor/Performer in The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, under the direction of Djanet Sears, running at the Centaur through October 18, 2015.

QDF: How was this production process different from others you have been involved with? What challenges did you encounter and what discoveries did you make?

Tamara: What makes this piece of theatre so distinct from other processes and from traditional Western Theatre practice is that often the different the artistic disciplines are very separate and specialized. But one of the things Djanet mentioned on our first day, was about the way she experienced this kind of work in Africa, and how the performing arts are integrated; that there is no separation of music from dance, from storytelling, from poetry, and so on. It all happens simultaneously, is interwoven and is inextricably linked.

In terms of this particular process of mounting the play, it also necessitated a very different approach, which has been a massive undertaking in only three weeks time (plus a week of tech rehearsal). This particular show has never been mounted in such a short time before. What the entire team has accomplished together is spectacular.

From the very first days, there was a lot of time spent giving and receiving love to one another in the company, time spent claiming and consecrating our space in the theatre and in the ensemble. We created an “altar of memories” to our craft, by sharing our stories about what keeps us grounded in the arts and just bonding with one another. We spend the first minutes of every day sharing and teaching one another something that we’ve learned, a special skill with each another. I confess that at the outset, as much as I loved it I also found it worrisome, given all the work that had to be accomplished in the short time we had. But now it has become clear to me (and to all of us, I think) that that investment of time is what has made us able to meet our goal.

You simply cannot compartmentalize and approach this work in a purely cerebral way. There is just too much information to take in; you can not sort it all out and so you have to trust the process and surrender to it. Singing, choreography, set changes that happen at different paces and rhythms… the Ancestors play instruments, beatbox, and more. The body has a wisdom of its own that helps to carry the load, our feet set a rhythm so that our voices and arms can play a counterpoint. As a group you’re constantly listening: you flock to each other, you exchange and all of those things have to happen simultaneously and look effortless so as to not distract from the action of the story. The choreography does not make sense without the music. The music has dynamics that influences the storytelling and the movement.

It has been a fascinating and a joyful struggle for me to work in this way, and  it has been an adjustment for most of us in the cast. We’re very fortunate to have some returning cast members to this show who honour the work but are not intimidated by it. Once we stopped resisting the process and trying to break things down according to our own comfort level, it all began to gel. We were not given sheet music, rather we learned the entire score (co-written by Djanet Sears and Alejandra Nuňez) by ear; by listening to one other and learning how to transpose it into any key, doing it over and over again, often while dancing to learn how to place it in our bodies and how to breathe through it.

So now the show lives in our muscles and in our breath, which is something that never really happens so quickly in this work. That we arrived here in time for dress rehearsal is somewhat baffling to me, (but given the incredible professionals in the cast it shouldn’t be). In theory, this can’t be done and yet it was only made possible by this process, by the bond between the ensemble and because of a wonderful support team. It’s a testament to what can be accomplished when you have to get something done and especially to the faith and incredible leadership of Djanet Sears.

QDF: It seems to me watching the show, that it is so much more soundscape than what we consider music.

Tamara: We are ancestral voices, not strictly a chorus and so our relationship to sound is different. We all have relationships to one another and in varying degrees to each of the characters. The sounds that we make are as much a part of the environmental setting as they are the inner life of Rainey or Abendigo. To call it a musical would be wrong. It has music in it, and there is choreography in it but it is not about performing the dance. This is an environment we are creating, every movement has a purpose. We create chaos and entropy on stage and out of that, life and new things emerge.  As Abendigo says (and I’m paraphrasing heavily), “Heaven is Negro Creek, and someday I will go back to the creek, become part of the grass that cows eat, which will feed someone, and thus continue the cycle of life.” So as ancestors we are in the trees, and in the water and wind. It’s a beautiful metaphysical concept; that we are all one, and that everything is everything.

QDF: Though there is a chorus, it is one made up clearly of individuals; connected to each other but each distinct from the other but working together.  As an actor, how do you do this individuating, when you have no text to guide you.

Tamara: While some of us did not have such text referring to us specifically, on the first day of rehearsal we were all given the genealogy, a family tree that Djanet had created. We discussed the times that we lived in, and how we are related to one another and to Abendigo and Rainey (or Ivy, in my case). There are are cues for many of us within the text, and the rest we had to extrapolate. Nevertheless we all had a reason to be present in the action and to stay close to the Johnson family through those difficult times. For me personally, Martha is spoken of in the play: I play Rainey’s (Lucinda Davis) stepmother, I am Ivy’s (Lili Francks) sister, and I was married to Abendigo (Walter Borden), so although the character choices and motivations for Martha are difficult and frought, for me the text was very rich. I have a whole history with Rainey, and can track what happened in my character’s life through her, by imagining what kind of woman would raise Rainey to become the woman she is today.

To Djanet’s credit, she is wonderfully able to compartmentalize her writer brain from her director’s brain, and as a result the writer was never “present” in the process. She kept seeking ways to illuminate the text and to deepen her own understanding of the story as well as our own. So that lack of conflict between what she as a writer wants to say and what her vision as a director is never clashed in any way during the rehearsal process; she stayed open to discovery and to all of our input up to the very last day of rehearsal, which helped a lot.

I can’t speak for the other Ancestors, but I was very lucky in that my character was so well delineated and often spoken of. Martha might be “gone,”  but she is still quite present. (Actually, I think that’s true of all the ancestors.) And we are all connected to each other. But in terms of the work of the actor it is always all about the choices; what is the most logical? What is the stronger, more authentic choice? What information is available in the script and what can you extrapolate from that?

There are no easy choices but that is what makes it great, a joy of a story to tell.

QDF: Based on that, and the fact that the character is a woman of colour, did that cause you to make different choices than you would usually?

Tamara: I can only work with the skin I am in. If the ethnicity of a character is not specified in the text, I play every role as I am, and with everything I understand of that.  I think that is what makes a role interesting. I believe I always have something to offer to a role because I am unique. I think that the image of a woman of colour is so valuable for the audience to see in stories. Viola Davis just spoke of this. Audiences have to see us to be able to imagine what is possible. It is great when a role is written with you in mind, but I would say that the bulk of the roles I get to play are race specific, and so I relish every opportunity to play when it is not specified. Then I can think about choices that are authentic to me and still fit within the text. The choices that I make might be different from my Caucasian colleagues, because of how I inhabit my Black and Aboriginal body given the reality of this world, and how I have to navigate space differently from others as a result.

It can bring a different dimension of truth to the storytelling that can be very interesting for audiences that may not be accustomed to it, and empowering for other audiences who don’t see a wider dimension of their stories told beyond issues of race that nevertheless reflect their reality.

QDF:  We know you to be a Director as well. Are there things that you are picking up and thinking that you want to bring to your own practice?

Tamara: There are definitely a couple of things, but I try not to think about that as there is so much work to do as an actor and I simply can’t spare the brain space. It was one of the reasons I so appreciated my time in the Black Theatre Workshop Artist Mentorship Program and during my artistic residency as a director. It gave me the space to observe great directors at work and think about and reflect on my own strategies and tactics. Still, it is hard not to think about and be inspired by the choices that Djanet makes as a director. This play, and this company has irrevocably changed me. I have never done anything like this before: to work with legends who are in their 70s and still doing great work, and to work with a script like this – I can’t be the same, I will never be the same.

I think to approach the work with love and kindness is always useful, and that is what I learned from Djanet and something that I will take with me. You can’t scrimp on the time needed to develop the bond of the ensemble, it saves so much time and aggravation down the road. Especially with a show like this one, there is so much pressure, that it would be easy to fracture and snap at one another as things come down to the wire. You have to be vigilant, because that tension can snowball and it’s so easy to forget that we are all working together towards the same goal.

As a performer, I am doing things I never thought possible. Based on the audition and callback, I had no idea what would be required of me as a member of this ensemble. I’m deeply flattered that Djanet had a vision for what I am capable of, because I certainly did not at the time. This process broke me down. I had planned to do other projects alongside this one, but within the first day and a half I knew – so long friends and family, I’ll see you in November.

Even once we open, I will spend my days recuperating, and then coming back and giving it all to the work, because it requires that. We all just want to give Djanet her story, because it demands that.

QDF: This season many companies are putting the spotlight on women. What do you think that women bring to the work.

Tamara: Well it is a different lens, a frame through which we see the world. The reality is, more women buy theatre tickets than men. What it means to have your own story reflected back at you authentically is difficult to express, but it means so much to have that validation. Women have to be able to tell their own stories.  Any writer with some imagination and empathy can reach out and tell the story of the Other, but I think it is really important for people who enjoy any modicum of privilege to make room for others to tell their own stories and let them speak for themselves. It matters. It makes a huge difference. That’s how to be an ally.

There are many white male writers who I’m sure would love to reach out and tell a story like this one, but there is a sensibility that is innate to Djanet that is valuable and it cannot be mimicked. Even if they wrote with the exact same words, it would not be the same. Because of who is speaking, because of who are the bodies that inhabit this story. Maybe you’ve heard this story before, but not with the characters who inhabit it, and this is the crucial distinction. The story is not for everyone, but it is directed at everyone, if you know what I mean. Some might resent that, but for others it is very meaningful and important that this be the case.

QDF: From here the show goes to Ottawa. Do you think the show will change as the result of the different audience?

Tamara: The bulk of the changes will have to do with navigating the space of the theatre itself. Montreal audiences are known for being vocal and very appreciative. My experience of playing in Ontario is that while audiences are just as appreciative, they might be less vocal about it. That being said, this is such a singular show, a type of theatre people don’t often get to see.

There has been a lot of buzz about this show in the Black and West Indian communities of Ottawa – thanks in great part to my very supportive mom- so I think that also makes a difference. It is just so powerful to get to see a reflection of yourself in a story. This is an opportunity we do not often get as people of colour or as aboriginals.

Who knows how the show will be received in Ottawa, but I find it hard to believe that anyone would not be moved by the themes in this show. It is just so epic: it is about love, loss, death, the nature of faith and science and so much more. How do we deal with unspeakable tragedy? How do we reconcile the strange within us when we are so badly scarred?  What do we do when we feel untethered from everything that keeps us anchored in this world? What do we hold onto? Such huge, sweeping themes. In any case, it’s not my responsibility to make an audience feel anything, that’s up to them. My job is to tell the story as faithfully as I can.

QDF: What is next for you?

Tamara: This week, I begin assisting Roy Surette while he directs Butcher at Centaur. When I come back from Ottawa I would like to rest, but we will see if that happens. (If I get the chance to work, I’ll absolutely take it; telling stories is my favourite thing in the whole world.) I am also currently on hold for a tv series I shot before we started here, while assisting Dean Fleming and Jess Abdallah at Geordie Productions. I can’t wait to get to see Squawk and Sidewalk Chalk when I come back home from the NAC.

In December or January, I will be workshopping Last Night at the Gaiety for Centaur while writing Songs and Stories for Black history month, a touring Canadian history presentation and conversation that I’ve done for the past two years with kindergarten and elementary school students in February with an amazing organization called Overture With the Arts. I will also help to coordinate BTW’s Vision Celebration Gala in January, which will honour Jackie Richardson with the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for her many contributions to the arts in Canada. And then in March, rehearsals start for Gayety. My life is very good right now and I’m so grateful to be a part of this arts community in Montreal.

QDF:  You are far from taking your place as an Elder, but you have reach the point where you make an excellent mentor for those coming up behind you. What would you say to the young Black aspiring artist to prepare them for what they will face, and to motivate them to keep going?

Tamara: A lot the opportunities that I have had are a result of asking for them, so I’d say: don’t be shy to ask for what you want and to put yourself out there. You have to be open to taking to new people and telling them what you are about. Get to know as many people as you can, and then hustle to make things happen and to create partnerships with the people that you want to work with. Nothing gets handed to you in this industry, these days you have to also be a creator as well as a performer to some degree. And the reality is that directors get used to calling on mainly the people they know, which is why we need to be challenged to step out of our own comfort zones. If you do not let them know that you are here and what you want to do, they will not necessarily think of you when opportunities arise that fit you. Those possibilities may not even occur to them until you put yourself forward.

You also have to have your own standards about the kind of artist you are and what you will do, to strive for excellence and be able to live with what you put out there. I don’t know that it is useful to take on the idea of having to “represent” for others. We’re not a monolith. What I do think is important, is to be uncompromising about your personal dignity and never do what is uncomfortable or feels inappropriate. That being said, if you can do like Lucinda Davis, who can take a grilled cheese sandwich of a role and serve it up to you like it’s a fine steak dinner, then definitely do that. She brings all of her intelligence and humanity to every role that she plays and makes something more of it. It’s why she’s one of our very best actors in my opinion.

Make them SEE you.

Tamara will be performing in The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God

At Centaur Theatre

From September 22nd- October 18th

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