A Greek God Reigns in Harlem
Jason C. Brown talks about his role as Euripedes’ Dionysus
BY CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
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 Cofi eld, 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
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 refl ected
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
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 amplifi ed 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
Jason C. Brown plays Dionysus in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s
adaptation of “The Bacchae” playing at Marcus Garvey Park
through July 28.
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
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 fi lm 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 fi lm 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
BROWN: No, you ain’t! However, Bryan Doerries’
translation, Carl Cofi eld’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 fl esh 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
MURRAY: How do you see sexuality, gender
fl uidity, 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
➤ THE BACCHAE, continued on p.23
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