On Theater and The Return Home: An Interview with Eastern’s New Theater Director Reginald Brown

      “Theater itself is a reflection of who we are as human beings,” Reginald Brown tells me as we chat in his office. “That was true during the Golden Age of Greece, it was true during the Elizabethan era, it was true during the Harlem Renaissance.” He adds that he has always been drawn to plays that challenge us and inspire us to grow: “theater exists in order to help us be better people.” And Reginald knows firsthand that theater is transformative: it was theater that helped him overcome a childhood stutter, and, when he was at his lowest, it was theater and the fervent prayers of his mother that carried him on to better days.

      Brown is new to the Eastern community, but in many ways, this position marks a return home for him. Before Eastern, he lived in Memphis, and then most recently in Texas where he taught at Austin Community College and performed in the surrounding area, despite it being “way too hot down there.” Having grown up in Newark, New Jersey, most of Reginald’s family lives in the Northeast, so coming to Eastern was “an opportunity to come home, and be with family and the environment that fostered and nurtured me.” Before Austin, Brown studied at Rutgers, then formed his own theater company with a friend, returned to school to get his master’s in theater pedagogy from Virginia Commonwealth University, and then taught at the University of Memphis, where he met his wife Teresa who is also a theater practitioner. “I was excited to be called to Memphis,” Brown tells me: “being near the Mississippi river meant a lot for me because of the history associated with it. And also Memphis being the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I’ve always loved Martin and his teachings and it was very important in my family and my upbringing.”

      Being in Memphis also deepened Brown’s fascination with black theater, a tradition he was first introduced to as a freshman at Rutgers, where he was introduced to the plays of such luminaries as Imamu Baraka and Lorraine Hansberry. Brown relayed to me the history surrounding Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in The Sun.” Inspired by a Langston Hughes poem entitled “A Dream Deferred” the famous play “looks at the African-American family and the impact of aspirations and dreams that are affected by negative circumstances.” The play asks its characters, “how do we handle it? Do we dry up, do we explode, or does it bring us closer?” Hansberry was influenced by Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” which asked viewers to pay attention to the stories of tragedy among everyday people. Likewise, Hansberry helped American audiences to recognize that African-Americans have stories too, which merit attention.

      Brown left Memphis when his mother got ill, and returned home to care for her until her passing. There was a special blessing during this time: it was an opportunity for his mother to spend time with him as a sober man after years of alcoholism. “I’m so very happy that she got to see her prayers answered. She’s jumping for joy right now that I’m here teaching at a Christian university.”

       Brown has a detailed understanding of theater and its place in society. The model that he teaches is sourced in Stanislavski and is built on “recognizing the truth in the character that we’re portraying, bringing our own understanding of what those truths are, and then realistically portraying them on stage by allowing ourselves to believe in what the character believes in.” Unlike method acting, this model does not ask the actor to lose herself in the character she is portraying but instead to connect herself with the truths she is revealing in and through the character. And crucially, the best plays do communicate truth to us. Consider Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” a play Eastern students will be performing this fall that tells the story of the Salem witch trials. Miller used the setting of the Salem witch trials as commentary on his own times, a way to explore the McCarthy Hearings of the 1950s designed to root out communists. Similarly, Brown wants us to see that this play is still very relevant today. “During our last presidential election, there was a lot of fear and a lot of rhetoric based on unfounded fear spread by fake news. ‘The Crucible’ shows us the danger of hysteria and the harm it causes people and society as a whole.”

      As the interview drew to a close, I asked Brown about the vision he is hoping to bring to Eastern. Naturally, he had many exciting things to say. “I want diversity. I want what we see on stage here to be reflective of our community here at Eastern and the community at large. I want it to be material that entertains us and enriches our lives and helps us to grow in our love for one another and fulfilment of God’s will and plan for us all. I want the theater to be open to all students, regardless of area of study, and whether or not they want a role onstage or backstage. And I want the theater program to reach across curriculums to support the work of the English department, or sociology, or history, or any department that’s willing to work with us.” Lastly, he of course wants all of us to consider auditioning for The Crucible (auditions are being held Sept. 29 and 30) and to definitely come see it when it is performed, beginning Nov. 16 and running through Nov.19.

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