When Michael Washington Brown moved from England to the United States, he was frequently asked if he was African-American.
He thought the question was absurd.
“I would say, ‘No, I’m not African-American. I’m black,’” says the North Scottsdale resident. “It was very obvious to me. It wasn’t an isolated situation. It’s something that’s been occurring to me over the 20-plus years I’ve lived here.”
As a result, he wrote the one-man show Black! about four individuals—an African, an African-American, a Briton and a Jamaican—who describe their personal experiences with the word. Audiences learn about their stories, how their lives are affected by “black” and their individual perspectives. It comes to the Tempe Center for the Arts on Friday, September 1, and Saturday, September 2.
“I thought this was something I needed to do,” Brown says. “I always write at night. These characters would just show up. I had this incredible ease of writing. It was almost meditational.
“I would say to myself, ‘Who wrote this?’ With God as my witness, I didn’t write this. Each character was very, very confident in what they wanted to say.”
In Black!, Brown embellished upon incidents that happened to him and shared them through the characters. Within six weeks, he had his first draft of the show.
“I didn’t even know it was going to be a show as I was writing it,” he says.
Brown didn’t realize the importance of Black! until it hit the stage. Recently, he brought the show to Chicago.
“The stories are centered around black individuals, sure, but there’s a strong universality of the messages these characters are sharing,” he says.
“Without trying to minimalize it, we’re all striving for the same things in life. However, somehow there’s a disconnect within the black community. I had a woman in Chicago say to me that it was difficult to hear some of those things. It was difficult for me to say it. It’s been a very powerful experience for me.”
Brown is the first generation born outside of his family’s direct heritage of the Caribbean.
He calls his birthplace of London an “amazing melting pot.”
“My first friend ever was a Chinese boy,” he says. “All of my other friends were from Barbados, Trinidad, Africa, Pakistan and India.”
In 1992 at 19, he left London for the shores of California, a place he fell in love with from his initial visit as a child at age 10. He knew even at this young age that he would make America his home. It was then, though, that he noticed the differences in cultures. He was raised to pay attention to the way he spoke, acted and carried himself. Brown used street lingo, but that was only for his friends.
“I could use it, but I would never bring that home,” he says. “I was raised to have a certain standard. Living in the U.S. in 1992, I started to pick up these nuances of speech patterns and different behaviors of black Americans.”
Brown was an avid thespian, until he met his wife and decided to take a break from the medium. He’s forever grateful for that experience.
“I stepped away from my art,” he says. “I thought if I wanted to settle down, I needed to do something more stable. I could never get the theater and acting out of my system, though. I took a 16-year hiatus. I didn’t go to too many theaters. It was too painful.”
It wasn’t until he saw a photo of his friend at the Tony Awards that he was drawn back into acting.
“Had I not lived that life, I wouldn’t have the perspective to share,” Brown explains. “My daughter is 16 and a fierce supporter of her father. I’ve been able to share that with her. I don’t hide things from her.
“She’s blown away with the physical manifestation of the show and the doors that it’s opening. This is a great testament that this gift is something I’m supposed to pass on. I should give it away and share it with the world. I’m blessed to have this message.”
It’s those types of experiences that inspired Brown.
“I was a little nervous about Black!,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if my message would be offensive. To my knowledge, no one’s thought of it that way at all. I’ve had nothing but encouragement.
“I’ve had several situations where people have come back with their children, teenagers or family members. To see teenagers have such an appreciation for the show, it’s heartwarming. I’m thankful for this.”
Black!, Tempe Center for the Arts Studio, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, 480.350.2822, tempe.gov/tca, 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 1, and Saturday, September 2, $25.