Writer and director Tyrone Brown started Brownbox Theatre because he wanted to see more African Americans buying Seattle theater tickets. "I think it's great that the Rep will do an August Wilson play, but I look around and see a mostly white audience. Why is that?" Brown asked. "Black folks tend to associate a theater event—even a black theater event—with white people."
Brownbox opens its first season with Hamlet X: The Tragedy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, adapted and directed by Brown. A riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet X takes place in "the Nation," a fictional political universe modeled after the separatist Nation of Islam utopia that Malcolm X first embraced and then rejected toward the end of his life.
After seeing a British-Arabic version of Hamlet at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Brown began thinking about our America's black Hamlet. "Malcolm sprang immediately to mind," Brown said. "He became disillusioned with the world he lived in, got motivated to action, and was murdered."
Apart from cuts and minor language tweaks, Brown left Shakespeare's original text intact. His direction, however, tells a more contemporary American story. He turns the comic gravediggers into Sisters preparing a body for traditional Muslim burial and Hamlet X preaches the "to be or not to be" speech in a mosque, holding the Koran in his right hand.
After Hamlet X, Brownbox will produce the original play Black to My Roots: African-American Tales from the Head and Heart, The Amen Corner (by James Baldwin), Before it Hits Home (by Cheryl West), and Wreck the Airline Barrier (by Adriano Shaplin). "We want to provide a theatrical home for people who don't normally go to theater," Brown said. "Hopefully then they'll start attending other Seattle theaters." He also wants to introduce a "black aesthetic" to Brownbox plays. Some argue there's no such thing as a black aesthetic, but Brown identifies a few qualities that black audiences often enjoy, including breaking the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience and specifically African-American diction, rhythms, and inflection.
"Mostly, we want to focus on producing work for a black audience," Brown said. "And hopefully that will produce something genuine that will have universal appeal." In a predominantly white medium, directing for a black audience takes a dedicated, conscious effort. In 2001, Brown directed Black to My Roots (which won a Fringe First Award at the 2002 Edinburgh Festival), and was dismayed to discover he was making artistic choices with a default white audience in mind. "At one point, we talked about using the n-word," Brown said. "I thought 'No, that might offend some white audience members.' And then I thought, 'Wait a minute, why am I directing this for a white audience?'"
The Rep, ACT, and Intiman all do their annual token black play. Will Brownbox have token white plays?
"No," Brown laughed. "It's being done—we don't need to do it for them."