Director Julius Powell on '52 Shades of Brown'

The 52 Shades of Brown cast. Photo credit: Vanilla Kalai Anandam '19

The 52 Shades of Brown cast. Photo credit: Vanilla Kalai Anandam '19

Frequently, in the African-American community, much is left unsaid. When beginning the process of working with Monet Thibou on her play 52 Shades of Brown, I knew her words would begin a unique exploration of the Black Millennial on stage—something rare that distinguishes it from most student productions. Although the audience walks in on this intimate moment between seven Black college students, they are also welcomed. The arms of these characters are open in ways that are equally comfortable and uncomfortable. 52 invites its audience to open its eyes to the depths of experience faced by young Black people today, and those depths run deep. Here at Sarah Lawrence, particularly in the theatre department, we find ourselves walking through these depths and working to find ways that these narratives and stories can be presented to larger audiences. 
    
With 52, I knew that by saying yes to directing the piece, I was implicitly saying yes to so much more than that. I was saying yes to being the figurehead for a show that was asking for a lot—even though it wasn’t. As an African-American theatre maker, there is a pressure for perfection that is felt in all spaces that we occupy. You want every aspect of the audience experience to be one that is not only good, but also disruptive—and that, ultimately, is what 52 calls for. In directing the piece, I knew that I would have to face all of the challenges of putting on a non-traditional narrative, and the biggest challenge that I faced was getting brown bodies into the room. Our cast was not complete until 3 days prior to the beginning of rehearsal. It was the only show in the Fall season to face this issue and as a director, it is disheartening to know that you are responsible for making sure that such an important project like 52, is produced, and produced correctly (read: in the way that the playwright and community wants it to be produced). 

With that being said, in order for this show to be put on, as a director, my decision and conversation with the playwright would have to be based in “look”. This meant that the focus of the show would not only have to be about the story—but it would, most importantly, need seven black bodies on stage. I searched high and low, and was able to cast an ensemble of 7 actors. With that being said, sacrifices to aspects of the show had to be made—as with any piece of theatre—and given the time frame, I knew that more than actors that were the most experienced and versatile, that I needed everyone on my team to be willing to work hard and know that in 15 rehearsal days, less than 45 rehearsal hours, and 1 tech day we would need to have a finished product that communicated Monet’s story in the best way possible.

The Theatre Department is in a period of time where relations between the student body and its faculty/administration are reaching into the aforementioned depths. The pain of the lack of representative narratives has reached its breaking point, and we as a community are anxiously attempting to find ways in which discussion, proposals, group efforts, and projects can ultimately fix this problem. But the question is then asked: is there a real way to fix these problems? Is there somewhere to go, that we haven’t already? And though, ultimately, what we want as a student body is to be understood—the line between what we as students can do, and what our administration and faculty can do is becoming more and more grey—for better or worse. What Monet captures reflects this idea of uncertainty for next moves. Rather than answering all of the questions that may be asked about the Black millennial, we find that some questions simply can’t be answered—and if they can reach the point closest to the answer, then we have surpassed the plane of passive listening, and must be forced to face the ground level of the depth of the Black experience.

52 enters, downstage center, as the result of these difficult discussions, and, of what it means to navigate being a “brown” student at Sarah Lawrence and beyond. 

In our own lives, this creation of Browness/Blackness manifests in ways beyond our control. It affects the constraints of our relationships with each other, both romantically and platonically. It affects our academic endeavors. It irons out our words in predominantly white spaces. It polices our tone during periods of frustration and anger, and it continuously comforts the oppressor, even when the Black/Brown body has been displaced. 

Throughout the process of getting 52 on its feet, I’ve wondered: what has history left those of us Black 20-somethings who live in the 21st century? 52 Shades of Brown shares that in an age of continuous questioning of life worth, we are reminded that although lives in this community are lost—those that are still alive, forge on, leaving just enough space for the hope of a better tomorrow. 

52 Shades of Brown sold out in less than 7 hours. The student body wants to see works of different narratives. They wish to experience art outside of their comfort zone. The demand is there. It is now our school’s job to meet that demand. 52 is more than just a show—it is a reminder of the thoughts and words of millennials of color that are still left unsaid.

May we appreciate these bodies and their stories, be unafraid to laugh at their joy, be displaced by their choices, and ponder the unanswered and unsaid.

Julius Powell '17

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