This is what could be found out about actor Emily Brown in the first 20 minutes of a Friday afternoon snack date at the Jazzcaffè on the first summery day of the summer:
Brown is 29 years old, grew up in the predominantly white, fairly well-off city of Sebastopol in Sonoma County and was one of those kids who was raised on Shakespeare productions and classical ballet. Politically liberal parents. Precocious singer turned high school musical theater nerd/buff/nut. Smith College theater major. American Conservatory Theater graduate school between ages 25 and 28. Slender build, 5 feet, 5 inches, brown hair, nice eyelashes, self-deprecating in a funny way, self-aware in a modern young person way.
“Acting is so tied up with your own psychology and your own history because you are the medium for these characters that you create, so you have to know what’s going on for you to know how to do that,” Brown said. “So it’s kind of like three years of therapy.”
Almost by accident, the conversation slipped into politically hot topics and continued to do so throughout the hour. The role that lightning-struck Brown was that of Maria in a production of “West Side Story” her senior year of high school. Brown has also played Maria in a professional production at Forestburgh Playhouse and offhandedly mentioned that now, she would almost definitely not get the role. “Because I’m white,” she explained, barely skipping a beat.
Increasing seriousness about diversity onstage is reflected in evolving casting practices within the entertainment industry. While an all-white casting of a musical centered around New York Puerto Ricans might have been a commercial hit in the ‘50s and ‘60s, right now is a time when “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Hamilton,” Latin American pop and K-pop are beginning to dominate the Western market.
“People don’t want to see a white woman playing a Puerto Rican woman,” Brown said. “I’ve heard (white) colleagues complain because, well, they’re doing this classic Western play, and they’re doing an all-Black cast or an all-Asian cast … and they’re like, ‘I would go in for it, but — ’ … It feels to a lot of white actors (that), ‘Oh, it’s even harder for me,’ which, I have to be honest with you, I have felt that at times, but … if you’re just looking at it from a pure marketing standpoint, you have those thoughts and feelings, and you can feel a little grumpy, but my values are in a place where this is what I want the theater landscape to look like.”
Brown self-identifies as both an artist and an activist. However elusive the definitions for these roles are, she sees the stage as a place to dissect uncomfortable ideas for both its dedicated purveyors and their audiences.
“Especially as stories are shifting and we’re starting to focus on narratives through different perspectives, you get a role like Allison Williams in ‘Get Out.’ I would love to play that role — it’s fucked up, but as a white artist, it’s like, yes, I should be getting into the mind of a fucking racist white woman. That’s part of my responsibility, too; it’s part of what I benefit from as a white artist,” Brown said.
But for now, Brown will play hawk-eyed private equity director Jenny in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of “Dry Powder,” which opened Thursday. Jenny is written as a strong-willed, ruthless money-driven professional in a cutthroat New York City finance world. Brown will be the only woman onstage alongside three male co-stars.
“In this whole #MeToo climate, there’s a lot that used to get under my skin or irritate me, but I would just laugh it off, and now I’ve gotten to a point where I feel like I wanna call people out on certain what would be considered harmless comments or attitudes, and I still haven’t quite figured out how to do that. … It’s awkward,” Brown said. “I think also I’ve learned that if I bring my politics and my activist self into my character, that doesn’t necessarily serve my character (Jenny).”
Confronting social imbalances and inequities are inherently tricky. As a professional actor, there’s a desire to be laser-focused and in character, while as an active citizen, there might be a responsibility to actually react in off-color situations.
This is not to say that Brown doesn’t sense the tension, because she does, and she talks about herself with a sort of in-the-moment straightforwardness that might be because of yoga but most likely is a because of her gut willingness to accept criticism and to desire social change, even if it means questioning the roles she plays as an actor with a dream, a white woman in a politically tense environment and a human being in a world full of other luckier and less lucky human beings.
“Even though I’m in the art world, that doesn’t mean that I’m in this imaginary space that’s outside of the reality of what’s going on and what’s taking place politically,” Brown said. “My role as an artist can really be to be an activist and an advocate.”