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Artists in Conversation: Lili-Anne Brown and Loretta Greco

Artists in Conversation

In the midst of rehearsals, Artistic Director Loretta Greco spoke with director Lili-Anne Brown about the enduring power of August Wilson, the value of working with a trusted team of designers, and the dramaturgical richness of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

Loretta Greco: You’ve been making theatre for a minute; you’ve been a director, an actor, and an educator. What attracted you most about the opportunity to direct this play?

Lili-Anne Brown: It’s August Wilson. In theatre training — and we all have similar training whether we went to a vaunted Ivy or a community college– we all learn the classics. Even if you have a liberal arts education, you are going to learn the Greeks and Shakespeare, and August Wilson is part of the tradition. But now when we start getting into the professional world, that’s when those classics become less attainable. In my career, I have not directed Shakespeare, and I love Shakespeare. I desperately want to direct Shakespeare, but I have not been allowed yet. A friend of mine and I have a Cassandra that we’re developing, because that’s a story that we want to tell — but I have directed no Greek classics. And, as we know, very few women have directed any August Wilson, so this is the first time in my career I have gotten to do this work, even though I have had so much access to it. I’m from Chicago, and three theatres — the Goodman, the Court, and Congo Square — all do fabulous productions of Wilson. When the beautiful ten-play edition of the Century Cycle was published, it was a splurge that I knew I had to spend my money on. But to get to work on August Wilson? I am beyond excited and delighted.

Loretta Greco: I was here in the rehearsal hall a week ago today when you began. One of the things I love about theater is that we walk in as a bunch of strangers, the lights go down, and in a minute in the dark, we become a community. Yet most people who are outside of the theatre field don’t realize that the same kind of community happens around the rehearsal table. What has happened in the last week?

Lili-Anne Brown: Oh, I think it’s also what happens in a boarding house – so it’s surreal that we’re playing in a boarding house. In the best loveliest boarding houses, there would be this big nice table, and someone like Bertha providing the meals and the chicken on Sunday. Disparate strangers who were scattered about and came from everywhere would share a space and become a sort of found family. That’s what happens a bit in the play, and that’s certainly what happens in a rehearsal room, if you are very lucky; and we are abundantly lucky here. It’s already raucous, familiar, familial, and it’s just really beautiful.

Loretta Greco: You spent a lot of time your first week at the table, which I love. I don’t know how you enter something this rich without the dramaturgy. I always say everything I know, I learned from being around the table with dramaturgy. What were the surprises?

Lili-Anne Brown: And we had Sandy Alexandre, our dramaturg. Oh my God, I think we were all just children with the favorite teacher. She is such a badass: smart, brilliant, and fabulous. We have gotten to say ‘Tell us more things! What do we not know?’ We talked a lot about the Black experience in 1911; where would these characters be coming from who are arriving in Pittsburgh? What is Herald Loomis coming from? What’s going on with this mystery man? There are elements in this play that are hard to deal with, and then other elements that are almost noir, almost Hitchcockian — and then this play is also hilarious. It might be Wilson’s funniest play. I was on the phone with one of my best friends the other night, who is unfamiliar with the play. So I started to tell him what it’s about, asking him: “In 1911, did you know about the governor of Tennessee? Joe Turney, his brother, was doing a terrible thing – did you know about the convict leasing system? Did you know about peonage?’ I’m telling him all this stuff — and he was like, ‘Whoa. Heavy.’ And I said,’ Yeah, it’s one of August Wilson’s funniest plays.’ He just died. He said, ‘What!’ So I said, ‘No, no, it’s true.’ This is my favorite thing to do as a director – show humanity as infinitely fascinating and infinitely absurd.

Loretta Greco: Absolutely.

Lili-Anne Brown: The best experiences in the theater are ones in which you are laughing and crying and your heart is racing, because that’s the real deal. Because in life –

Loretta Greco: — it’s that juxtaposition. It’s never one or the other. You said several things first day that I was really drawn to — one was that you said to me that you looked for actors that could find the humor, and I so appreciated that. But it goes hand in hand with how you said we had to find a way to not be reverent. You have talked about how we must find a way to live in the play right in this moment freshly, not solely as a monument to one of our greatest writers. Can you talk about finding the contemporary resonance through the lens of the pandemic?

Lili-Anne Brown: You always have to discover why we should care right now about a play. Why should anyone find themselves in this today? We all know August Wilson was an absolute genius. But right now, what about this play speaks to me? My first way into Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was having just been through the shutdown and the pandemic that we’re still living in. I thought about the unknowing of that time — which for theater people was something special, because we are the only industry that 100% stopped for a long period of time. Much like in the play, people lost their livelihoods, people lost their resolve; we are a very dedicated community, and when you take art away from artists, it’s pretty harrowing. People moved all over the place, and you didn’t know where anyone was. You were at home maybe, or maybe you had to move. Some people had to go home, wherever home was, where they came from and move in with family. A dear friend had gotten married a month before the shutdown and got divorced, because the situation and their parameters changed so dramatically. There were also people who said, ‘I finally stopped long enough to realize…’ That’s why we have had so much reckoning in the country, right? Because we finally stopped long enough to think.

Loretta Greco: People asked themselves for the first time, ‘Is this good for me?’

Lili-Anne Brown: We haven’t stopped to think in such a long time, because this industry moves, right? “The show must go on.” When the show did not go on, people had to sit with themselves, and ask ‘Is it worth fighting to continue?’ Some people decided, ‘No, I actually want to do something else.’ ‘I had time with my sourdough starter, and decided I want to be a chef.’ ‘I had a kid and I decided I want to stay at home and educate my children.’ Yes. Anything.

Loretta Greco: People said, ‘I had a moment to reflect, and I decided I could be impactful somewhere else, or that it was healthier for me to be in another kind of environment and culture.’

Lili-Anne Brown: In the shutdown, we all experienced something that stopped us; that pushed us to this reckoning. We had a scattering, and now we’re all trying to put the pieces back together. That was my entry point; I feel like I’m at the boarding house asking people: ‘What’s your journey been like? Where did you come from? How did you make it?’ In many ways, it makes me think of my great-grandparents. My parents were part of the Great Migration, and my father’s grandparents were enslaved. My father knew them; he was raised by them. So I was raised by someone who that was a close up experience. The past never felt like long ago and far away to me. My father was born in 1924, 13 years after the events of this play. He talked about this period all the time. He always told me what his childhood was like in the South, in the twenties and thirties. It’s very fascinating and interesting.

Loretta Greco: When did they come to Chicago? I love that you call it ‘Up South.’

Lili-Anne Brown: My dad didn’t end up in Chicago until the sixties. He was from Texas, and my mom was from Mississippi, and then ended up in Chicago after college. They both actually had graduate degrees.

Loretta Greco: But these stories that they carried were ones that they told at the dinner table.

Lili-Anne Brown: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Loretta Greco: For this production here, you brought a whole community of designers with you. Your scenic designer Arnel works with a beautiful sense of simplicity that I find very rare. I love the little nod to period with the wallpaper, but he left room. Would you talk about what it is to share a vocabulary with designers? What was it like dreaming this world, this time, and conjuring it with your colleagues?

Lili-Anne Brown: This team, we’ve been together for some years now, and we like that. We don’t always get to work together, but we attempt to work together as often as possible. The biggest thing is the trust, the absolute trust. It’s so easy with people that they understand you. They know your tastes, they know what you’re talking about, and you dream together. So as far as Arnel and I, you know – no shade to the Huntington but our first draft of the design, we had a whole house, and then we were told you can’t have all that.

Loretta Greco: Yes, you got the ‘you’re 100% over budget.’ Yeah, that happens all the time.

Lili-Anne Brown: That was a fantastic opportunity. We’re both so glad that happened — because that was an opportunity to break from what came before. It is so easy to believe, ‘We have to have a whole boarding house on stage, right?’

Loretta Greco: It’s so easy to think that.

Lili-Anne Brown: ‘We need all those rooms. We will be flayed and pilloried if we don’t have a house!’ [laughs] Now we got to have another thought; we were able to become much more symbolic and gestural. Arnel and I do a lot of musicals together, so we are in some ways more used to that than being literal.

Loretta Greco: I love this, because one of the things I hope to bring to the Huntington are portals for the audience, ways we can set the table for audiences to go deeper and richer and see just a little bit more about what goes into making the work onstage. What else do you want people to know?

Lili-Anne Brown: I feel like this is a play where everyone will see themselves in it. Because who has not searched for home in some way at some point in their life? Who has not been unmoored? Who has not been able to find their song? We all have to find our song, every human being. Every person has to find their song, you know.

Loretta Greco: Everybody’s been lost at one point, and that’s usually what catapults you.

Lili-Anne Brown: Everybody’s had trauma — large or small — that can knock you off your path. That’s what it means to be human.