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A Greek God Reigns in Harlem

Jason C. Brown talks about his role as Euripedes’ Dionysus

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Actor Jason C. Brown is taking the lead role of Dionysus in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s adaptation of “The Bacchae,” being performed outside at Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park through July 28. Bryan Doerries’ updating of the Euripides classic is directed by Carl Cofield, with choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher.

Brown studied acting at the American Rep/ Moscow Art Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard. Tall, handsome, and friendly, he played the Ghost of Christmas Present in the company’s “A Christmas Carol in Harlem” last year. He called his portrayal of the god of wine, fertility, and ecstasy “probably the most challenging role I’ve had to date. We’re trying to fuse the contemporary and classic aspects of the text and not let audiences get bogged down in the classical parlance while trying to reveal the themes of duality.”

Noting the role’s dynamic physicality — with a lot of dance — and the midsummer performance dates, Brown said, “It’s going to be hot! Physically challenging and very emotionally demanding.”

Brown lives in Harlem’s Sugar Hill and spoke to Gay City News about acting while black and gay.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: How do you see stage roles for black actors changing?

JASON C. BROWN: More black playwrights are being produced in New York theater, bold playwrights with unapologetic voices creating authentic, complicated stories and characters. More roles worth playing are being created, roles that actors like myself see myself reflected within. Liberated playwrights create more sophisticated, complex, multifaceted people to play, in narratives which are showcased from more vantage points than they were in the past.

MURRAY: For black gay actors?

BROWN: Queer black playwrights are rising and thriving. Playwrights I adore like Jordan E. Cooper, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the living Michael Jackson, Jeremy O. Harris, and many, many more who are blowing the lid off of and refashioning traditional storytelling and creating black gay characters and relationships onstage we’ve never seen or heard of onstage before. Because of this, we can show up in audition rooms as we are or as our amplified selves without being told to butch it up or be more black. We’re less likely to lose black gay roles to straight black men because the scope, the lens through which we are seen or perceived, or allowed to be perceived, has been widened, if not completely changed by these fresh voices. There is more space for us onstage.

MURRAY: Do you feel you get stereotyped or typecast?

BROWN: I’ve not been considered for roles because I’ve been stereotyped, because I’m not seen as having the potential to play them because people can’t see past the stereotype they’ve made. I’m probably most guilty of typecasting myself in my head, and not gone out for roles or auditions for fear of being rejected for how I present.

MURRAY: Do you feel like being gay, being black, being gay and black is stigmatized at all anymore in the entertainment industry?

BROWN: Of course. More so in film and television. We’re stigmatized in life, and those doing the stigmatizing are the gatekeepers to what gets seen on screen. Stigma is fueled by stereotype, and stereotype thrives on film and TV for all people of color regardless of sexual orientation. With the proliferation of media platforms and opportunities for queer people of color to create their own content, we are able to circumvent those spaces and get more authentic portrayals out there.

MURRAY: What has been one of the most empowering jobs you’ve had as an actor?

BROWN: The jobs I’ve had with Classical Theatre of Harlem. They’ve allowed me to explore and create and use my talents and my process in ways I’ve never experienced before. I’m so grateful for that.

MURRAY: Whom do you really admire?

BROWN: I really admire black trans women. Literally leaving their front doorsteps is a political act of survival. The bravery of our black trans community in the face of the threat and discrimination they confront on a daily basis garners my utmost respect. And Bayard Rustin. He gave zero fucks about his sexuality much less his race at a time when he could be killed for both. And Denzel Washington because he’s an acting trailblazer and icon.

MURRAY: Greek theater in the summer in Harlem, am I wrong for thinking that sounds intense?

BROWN: No, you ain’t! However, Bryan Doerries’ translation, Carl Cofield’s direction and vision are so accessible, so contemporary, the intensity will be fueled by the engagement of the actors and the audience and the revelation of the story. The creative team behind this show makes a visual intensity that will reverberate far beyond the borders of Harlem!

MURRAY: Playing Dionysus, ditto intense?

BROWN: Yes. Very. Creating our version of Dionysus has put me in touch with parts of myself I didn’t know existed, unearthed emotions I didn’t know I was capable of expressing. I can’t help but act from a very personal place, and what Dionysus represents in tandem with his vengeance and the source and reasons for that vengeance — exploring those things to flesh out the character has been very emotional for me. I’ve also changed a lot personally and I’ve had to get in touch with a former self I didn’t think I’d return to in order to play this part properly, thoroughly, if that makes any sense.

MURRAY: How do you see sexuality, gender fluidity, etc., as part of the character of Dionysus?

BROWN: Dionysus is, in my opinion, the gayest of the gods in the Greek pantheon. If Dionysus were here today he’d probably use the pronouns they/ them. Historically, he presents as male, but he’s hunted down by Pentheus for his effeminacy, the sexual liberation he manifests in himself and in the women, the Bacchae, who follow him. I see him and strive to portray him as pansexual. He’s shunned and denied from his family and his home by being different, by being other. And because of it he’s forced to seek and create a family of his own. He has to force people to see him, acknowledge his existence, to respect him, and has to go to great and dire lengths in order to command it. I think those are qualities many queer members of our audience will identify with and relate to.

THE BACCHAE | Classical Theatre of Harlem | Marcus Garvey Park, Mt. Morris Park W., btwn. E. 120th & E. 124th Sts. | Through Jul. 28: Tue.-Sun. at 8:30 p.m. | Admission is free | cthnyc.org/summer/

Updated 5:24 pm, July 9, 2019
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