Once upon a time, Charlottesville-based playwright Caruso Brown was a terribly shy, introverted student at Virginia State College (now University). He grew up writing poems.
That may have been the end of it, if a drama director at the school hadn’t read one of Brown’s poems and insisted that he perform it during the school’s homecoming.
“So I did it in front of 3,000 people, and I thought I would die,” Brown said with a laugh. “But that experience set me free. That’s when, in the language of the church, the anointing became clear that God had given me the gift to write.”
He went on to recite several verses of the poem from memory in the strong, rhythmic voice of a man long-practiced in public speaking.
“Since then I’ve written 80 plays and performed 50-60 of those, many of those in the church,” he says.
Brown, a Baptist minister and Servant Leader of Mount Zion First African Baptist Church’s Expressions of God Drama Ministry, is “empowered by a group of strong individuals,” including Dolores Brock, a director, stage manager and actor who “fills in all the details” of Brown’s self-described “broad brush,” Michelle Allen, an artistic director, actress and monologue playwright who “can see something and add creative ways through her artistic abilities or vision to make a scene come alive,” and Reginald Anderson Sr., a director, audio-visual technician and actor.
Every show performed by the Expressions of God Drama Ministry includes cast and crew members from Mount Zion’s congregation and members of the public. Now Brown and his group will join the Live Arts Foundry in the MELANIN presentation I Got Dreams, Brown’s adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s famous 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun.
“I’ve done a good bit of collaboration with community theater,” Brown says. “I think it’s a better way to expose people to what you have to offer.”
For the last three years, Expressions of God’s shows included contemporary stories with backdrops of Easter and Christmas as well as shows tied to historical themes for Black History Month. “A few years ago we did a production called Freedom’s Dream with an Underground Railroad theme. We went to Maryland for a production during their Emancipation Day,” Brown says. “Last year we did Slaves Without Shackles, which dealt with a period in American history where lynching was at an all-time high. That was a story built on a small community trying to deal with a lynching of one of their own.”
“We take it to the edge,” Brown adds.
This year, the group chose to perform a shortened version of A Raisin in the Sun because “it seemed to capture that next level, moving through American history from slavery to Jim Crow and now this,” he says.
I Got Dreams includes a series of new monologues at the introduction of every scene to give the audience a sense of story without unfolding every scene in its entirety.
He describes writing a piece for Lena Younger, the mother from A Raisin, to encapsulate her ongoing struggle to raise her children in a world she can’t understand.
“You take the risk of being transparent enough to let the audience see and know a character at the beginning. If you do it successfully, they then join the family. They become a member and part of the storyline that unfolds.”
This is especially valuable in stories where audience members may not feel the same level of tension in their own lives. “Like an impoverished family living in a racially divided time,” Brown says. “Not that we are mended now, but the division was even stronger then. [When you see the show], regardless of your race, you can wonder about your own dreams.”
The ability to expand horizons motivates Brown’s work as a minister and servant leader as well as a writer. “My aim is not so much to push God on everyone but just for everyone to appreciate the God that lives within all of us,” he says. “I write an awful lot about hope. About people believing enough in themselves that things can be made possible.”
He said that hope allows you to see your way through your darkest days. “For some people that’s God, for others it’s grit or determination, to keep hope in front of you,” he says. “I grew up in Jersey City in a housing project, and by every statistic I should not be where I am, the deputy director of [Region Ten], a $40 million organization. I say that not for claim of fame but just that it was hope, a belief that I can and should see beyond my immediate lens, that has allowed me to be as successful as I’ve been. I give all credit to God, to always keeping hope in front of me and believing that it all is possible.”
on June 19 and 20 at Live Arts Theater.