Broadway choreographer Camille A. Brown has had a momentous few months. In September, she became the first Black artist to direct a main-stage production at the Metropolitan Opera, sharing directorial duties with James Robinson on “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which she also choreographed. Now, she’s making history again with “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which opened April 20, as the first Black woman since Katherine Dunham in 1955 to both direct and choreograph a Broadway play.
For “Fire Shut Up,” which includes dance routines at the start of the second and third acts, Brown tapped into African American history by bringing step dance into the performance. The story is based on Charles S. Blow’s memoirs about coming of age as a Black man in the South. For the opening of Act 3, when Charles is hazed as a fraternity pledge at Grambling State University, Brown used an intense step routine as a storytelling mechanism to show what the character is experiencing. “At one point, Black people weren’t allowed to perform on that [Metropolitan Opera] stage, and here we are doing something rooted in African American tradition,” Brown says.
Terence Blanchard, Spike Lee’s go-to composer, created the score, becoming the first Black composer at the 139-year-old Met.
Incorporating step allowed Brown to display her versatility as a choreographer. She had just a week of pre-production before official rehearsals to work on all the moves, and three full weeks of rehearsals before showing them to an audience. With Ntozake Shange’s formchanging choreo-poem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Brown is on double duty. The show began performances at the Public Theater, and when it transferred to Broadway, she was asked to serve as both director and choreographer. “Every director has their vision, and I was excited to share mine and what I wanted to say,” she explains.
With Ntozake Shange’s formchanging choreo-poem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Brown is on double duty. The show began performances at the Public Theater, and when it transferred to Broadway, she was asked to serve as both director and choreographer. “Every director has their vision, and I was excited to share mine and what I wanted to say,” she explains.
“For Colored Girls,” which is eligible for Tonys, tells the stories of seven Black women, blending poetry, song and movement in tales filled with humor, honesty and passion — and painting a saga of survival in a world shaped by racism and sexism.
“This is a story about sisterhood and healing. It’s about creating safe spaces for Black women to share, to be vulnerable, to be honest and to be storytellers,” says Brown. The choreo-poem aspect meant she could zone in on how movement is used as a means of communication. “Dance is not secondary here. It’s leading along with the text,” she says.
Choreography, Brown says, whether in the play, in the opera or anywhere, is not about working alone. The Booth Theatre production includes Myung Hee Cho’s sets, Sarafina Bush’s costumes, Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design and Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby’s original music. “It’s not about those different elements, but how these elements are functioning together,” Brown says.
In bringing the show to Broadway, she says she considered several aspects: “What were the sounds that we hear? What are the rules that we see? What are the things that we’re wearing that make it [about] honoring the past? But also, how does it look to the now?”
Brown takes the measure of the impact and legacy of her groundbreaking opportunity. “I didn’t think this was possible,” she says. “This was something I didn’t see coming.” But she also allows herself to wonder: “Why did it take so long?”