The Theatre of Protest: In Conversation with Tyrone Brown

Tyrone Brown Naomi Ishisaka

Tyrone Brown inhabits a unique space between theatre, academics and activism. He’s a director, producer, founding member of Brownbox Theatre and MFA alumnus of Seattle University who now works there as an administrative coordinator. He’s also emerged as a leading local activist of the Black Lives Matter movement. He organized Seattle U’s Moral Mondays, an ongoing initiative of social justice events including film screenings, protest actions, the Pecha Kucha presentation series and memorials to black people killed by police violence. The nights are well-attended by both students and locals and feature a wide cross-section of Seattle’s social justice community, from ACLU lawyers to teenaged anti-racism organizers.

Brown’s work on Moral Mondays harnesses institutional influence to amplify a message of justice and his work in theatre carves out spaces for the representation of black voices and the black experience. It’s a multidisciplinary, multigenerational endeavor.

I talked to Brown about last week’s Black Friday protest, the next steps for the movement and how his work in theatre informs his activism.

Can you tell me your thoughts about how the protest went?

In terms of the overall protest, I felt it was “mission accomplished.” Once we moved away from Westlake and started marching around, I knew that the police were not going to allow us to come back to the stage and [Christmas] tree area. So the fact that people were able to break up and come back and end up in front of that stage, that’s one thing that needed to be accomplished, and it happened.

I thought the whole juxtaposition between [the people onstage] playing Christmas music and dancing and trying to act like nothing’s going on and all of the people chanting “black lives matter” was an accomplishment. It was about making sure that people understood this wasn’t business as usual.

I came down with a group of 12 students from Seattle U and they were prepared to play a support role. They brought water, cough drops, extra clothes, first aid kits. I felt safe because of the group I was with, because they’d really done their homework.

At one point our little group broke off. There was this group of people walking around with these “Buy More Stuff” signs and we went to confront them, to see if they were trying to make fun and create a counter-narrative or if they are a part of this movement. We caught up with them and I realized they were about everything and nothing at the same time. What I basically said to them was, it’s just another form of white privilege that you can come down here and create this narrative that doesn’t mean anything while you have the Black Lives Matter event happening and you’re basically saying you’re not for or against it.

You mentioned that moment where they were performing on the stage and everyone was chanting “black lives matter.” That was a truly weird moment.

Once again, they had their strategy and we had ours. For me, it was successful in terms of my personal experience and the interactions with the students and then the outcome of getting back to Westlake and being able to have that dissonance.

We’re one of the few cities that showed support to Chicago, and I think even the police were surprised by the numbers. Also I was surprised by—I hate saying the word diversity—but there were children and families and a little bit of everybody out there. There was a significant contingent of Asians 4 Black Lives, which was cool to see.

I will say is that I recognize the limitations of this kind of effort. I wasn’t even going to go originally, but I decided last minute because Seattle U students were going and I wanted to support them. Also, I had done some more reading about Laquan, the coverup and all of that.

I do recognize the limitations of that effort. There are certain people who are always at these events and leading them, and that’s great, but in 2016 they all need to communicate more with one another. Just having those megaphones is not enough.

You mentioned going there with Seattle U students. You’re someone who’s working both outside of institutions as an activist and also within the institution of Seattle University, especially with Moral Mondays. How do you balance that and foster change in the university setting?

My efforts on behalf of Black Lives Matter at Seattle U are grounded in Seattle U’s mission, so I feel very confident in that. I may have a luxury of understanding how to navigate different aspects of the university and different relationships with people who trust what I do. I try to be imaginative in terms of what that movement should be on our campus, of fitting into our campus culture, the rhythm of it.

You’re also bringing in people from outside the U.

I come back to Seattle U and its mission; part of it is about engaging the community. I’m just doing what we’ve said we do!

There’s real interest within the community around these issues and maybe it’s easier to come to the U because of where it’s located—it’s central, so people are inclined to come. Also a lot of black people, for the most part, have a positive perception of the U because a lot of black people have graduated from here.

The impulse to start Moral Mondays came out of the fact that I went to Ferguson. That was a mind-changing experience. When I came back to Seattle U, I was fired up, like, “I’m not asking if we’re gonna do this, I’m telling you!” Yes, I’m an employee, but I’m not the president, I don’t oversee a staff; I’m just a staff member, so I’m allowed to do things that maybe my supervisor couldn’t do. But they still support me in that endeavor.

Let’s bring in the third leg of the stool, which is, of course, that you’re a theatre artist. There’s certainly some theatricality involved in a march or a protest, and also you’re “directing” a colloquium with Moral Mondays. How does your experience as a theatre director inform those?

Oh, it absolutely does. I might say “protesters” but in my mind I’m thinking “the audience.” The aesthetics of how you communicate are like the theatre to me. So I bring those tools.

People will say something about an event, like “It just felt right, it was thought through.” Well that’s that theatre background. I’m thinking, “When people come in we need to play music.” That’s why we have the DJ. And the type of music we play needs to represent the social justice movement. The discussion, the flow of participants, I take all those things into consideration.

I come at the Black Lives Matter movement with my theatre director’s cap on, so if I’m doing programming I’m trying to flesh out how it could have the most impact, how it could communicate. Everything from the graphic design for the posters to the ambience in the room.

We all need to be in sync. Some of the larger signage at the march, people who thought to bring images of the black victims; I thought, in theatre that’s exactly what you would do. That’s all in my head. Certain things need to be at play that are theatrical constructs. From my perspective I’m probably more aware of them and I try to bring them out more. At one point [on Black Friday] I told people who held signs, “You need to get out in front.”

How does Black Lives Matter inform your theatre work?

I’m not separating the two anymore. I was talking to somebody about the work I’ve been doing and I said, “I directed this play” and I also said “I brought Sybrina Fulton [Trayvon Martin’s mother] to campus.” That’s not theatre, but it’s something I produced. The Black Lives Matter movement has allowed me to embrace more of the social justice person that’s in me, and also find ways to tie it into my work.