by Darlene Donloe
The name Gilbert Glenn Brown has become synonymous with “good works” around the L.A. theater world.
A handsome gent with a bright, poetic smile, Brown enjoys a career that has spanned film, television and theater. His theatrical credits are extensive, and the list of directors and actors that he’s shared a stage with reads like a Who’s Who of Los Angeles theater.
On this particular day, as the sun is setting after an extremely warm afternoon, Brown is sitting on the upstairs patio of the Fountain Theater, dapper in a gray cap, blue-and-white rolled up checkered shirt and gray vest. He’s ready to talk about the actor’s life that he’s carved out.
Known for bringing all of himself—and none of himself—to his roles, Brown has delivered a number of stellar performances, playing vivid and memorable characters that have earned him the COLSAC Best Lead Performance Award, two Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards and an LA Weekly Award.
He made women swoon and men suck in their guts delivering an arousing performance as Shango, the neighborhood bad boy in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s original comedy/drama, In The Red and Brown Water, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. He was the intense and absorbing older brother Ogun Size in McCraney’s The Brothers Size, also directed by Finney. Most recently, he was probably the most sensually-charged Polyneices ever to grace a stage in the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s The Gospel At Colonus.
Now the Brooklyn native is set to play Jonathan in the West Coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s latest play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, a drama directed by Simon Levy, now playing at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
This production marks the Fountain Theatre’s 15-year relationship with the playwright that began in 2000 when Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs directed Fugard’s The Road to Mecca. It was then that Fugard, an Academy Award winner for Tsotsi (Best Foreign Language Film), recipient of the 2011 Tony for lifetime achievement—and a multiple Obie and Tony Award-winner best known for his plays rooted in the scars of South African apartheid—reportedly began to call the Fountain his “artistic home on the West Coast.”
Inspired by the work of real-life outsider artist Nukain Mabuza, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is set in South Africa in the 1980s. It tells the story of elderly Nukain, a farm worker and self-taught artist who has spent years painting the rocks and boulders at Revolver Creek, transforming them into a garden of flowers.
The play, which also stars Thomas Silcott, Philip Solomon and Suanne Spoke, begins when the final, most challenging unpainted stone and a young boy named Bokkie (Nukain’s assistant) “force Nukain to confront his legacy as both an artist and a black man in 1980s South Africa,” where the horrible injustices of apartheid still prevailed at the time—dividing the country into black and white.
The minute he read the script, Brown jumped at the chance to play Jonathan, the grown-up version of Bokkie, who returns to Revolver Creek to restore the faded rocks as a tribute to Nukain, the friend he loved.
“What I like about Jonathan is the need he feels to come back and stand up for someone he loves,” says Brown. “He comes back to stand up for someone who wasn’t able to stand up and say I’m a man, or say that he mattered.”
Although he’s a “huge fan” of the playwright, this is the first time that Brown has tackled an Athol Fugard play. “I am familiar with his activism,” Brown says, “and using theater as a means of activism. I was groomed, in a sense, to look at issues head on. It’s about telling the truth with the material. I read the play and I was blown away by it because of the honesty of the material.”
“What’s wonderful about Gilbert,” says Simon Levy, who is directing the show, “is that he’s this beautiful combination of sensitivity and danger,” says Levy. “He possesses a deep well of emotion that reveals itself in surprising ways so that the character always feels kinetic and honest.”
“I think I understand where Simon wants to go with this piece,” Brown says. “He’s very clear on making sure that the audience can connect with the story and with the living, breathing human beings—not in a superficial way. It’s a wonderfully written piece.”
Brown is working with a dialect coach to get Jonathan’s South African accent right. “I want to honor the person I’m portraying [and] the people who actually speak that language…and be so connected, that I don’t think it’s an accent, it’s just how I speak.”
Now that Brown has had several weeks to ingest the material, he’s gained more insight into the meaning and intent of Fugard’s words. Comments from a documentary on apartheid that Brown watched as research added to his understanding:
“An activist said apartheid not only jails the people that are oppressed,” Brown recalls, “but also the jailers because they are caught in a cycle. You become dehumanized when you think someone is not as much as you are. Until you can say this happened, and acknowledge that it happened, there will be no movement. The people affected are not going to let it go. I realize now that it’s an opportunity to see each other as human beings.
“That is what the play means to me,” Brown says. “I’m always looking for truth.”
Levy is looking for the same thing, which is why he wanted to direct the piece.
“At the heart of Athol’s work is his humanity, his understanding of our frailties and strengths and how these play out against a larger social and political landscape,” says Levy. “We are, all of us, important; each of us has a place in this world and in the particular society we live in. And though we may have differences of opinion, we have a duty, a responsibility really, to be kind to one another, to do what’s right, to stand up to repression, to give each other a safe place and opportunity to express ourselves—especially the artists of the world, who are some of the most vulnerable members of society. We have a duty to protect these people and the works they create… because those works need to live on as evidence of our humanity.”
Levy considers it a privilege to be able to direct one of Fugard’s plays. “We’re blessed to be the Los Angeles artistic home for Athol’s new plays, and it’s always an honor to bring his plays to life,” he says. “This one, about an artist at the end of his life, struggling with how to express his story, to say something meaningful about being a man, about being an artist, and the place his art has at a particular historical moment, is important to me because it’s the question I’m always asking myself as an artist: Where am I in this art? How does this express what I care about? What’s in my heart?
“And, then, by extension,” Levy says, “comes the bigger question: How does this reflect what’s going on in society? And how can I awaken or re-awaken others to these issues?”
“The Fountain is brave with the material and subject matters they take on,” says Brown. “They always push the envelope.”
Brown can relate. When he considers a role, he asks, “Is it a challenge? I don’t do it just for the money. I’m not getting rich here. It’s the quality of the piece. The bravery of the piece. You get all of that with an Athol Fugard play.”
A Creative Journey
Brown—a writer, singer, dancer, director, producer, director of photography, artist, choreographer and self-proclaimed “artsy tech geek”—didn’t choose the arts. The arts chose him.
His journey into entertainment began at age eight when his family took him to Manhattan to see his first play, a children’s musical calledThe King Of The Entire World. In elementary school, Brown, a middle child with two younger sisters, an older brother and an older sister, wrote a play based on the death of Socrates. In middle school, he saw Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Instead of playing outside with his friends, pulling little girls’ ponytails, kicking cans and longing to be a fireman like other little boys, Brown, a Brooklyn native, would be in his room translating Julius Caesar into modern day English.
“Seeing my first play, writing about the death of Socrates and seeing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing—it all blew my mind,” says Brown.
Brown went on to study at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He has appeared in the films Dreamgirls, Drumline 2: The Beat, Romeo & Juliet Revisited, Night Falls On Manhattan and more. He is the co-creator, producer, writer and director of the forthcoming web series All In The Timing, and he will soon appear in the new CBS show, The Inspectors. But theater has been Brown’s foundation. There is no other medium quite like it, he says.
“The same thing never happens. There’s a different energy from each audience and from each cast member. The lines are the same, but what comes out is different. The way it feels and sounds is different. Every night it changes.” When he’s doing a play, Brown says, “I transcend. That world becomes the world that I live in. I want the audience to feel uncomfortable because they are looking at my soul. I don’t want them to watch someone acting.”
Brown, who taught Intro to Acting at Columbia College and, as a way to give back, teaches theater in the Lynwood school system, says that he hopes through his work to offer options and other possibilities to open up minds and expand people’s thinking. I want them to transform somehow,” he says. “The first thing I had as an actor was my instinct and impulse, [so] I like pieces to hit me and stir me. I like pieces that are real.”
For Brown to play Jonathan with any degree of authenticity, he has to “understand where the character is coming from by understanding his truth,” he says.
“I have to accept his reality. I’m approaching this role with honesty, openness, sincerity and passion because I have to find the humanity in Jonathan in order to play him.”
As his words attest, Brown wears his fervor for his craft on his rolled up sleeve. He is unwavering in his determination to bring integrity and validity to his performance.
“Am I the right person for this role?” asks Brown. “I’m here. I must be.”
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek runs to Dec 14. More Info/Tickets
Darlene Donloe is a seasoned publicist and an entertainment and travel journalist whose work has appeared in People, Ebony, Essence, LA Watts Times, Los Angeles Sentinel, EMMY, The Hollywood Reporter, Rhythm & Business, Billboard, Grammy, BlackVoices.com and more. This post originally appeared on @ThisStage