Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Lili-Anne Brown

Artist Profile by Eli Timoner


A native Chicagoan, Brown works as a director, actor and educator, both locally and regionally. Recently she helmed the world premieres of Ike Holter’s Lottery Day at Goodman Theatre and Put Your House in Order at LaJolla Playhouse. The former artistic director of Bailiwick Chicago, she directed Dessa Rose (Jeff Award), Passing Strange (BTA Award), See What I Wanna See (Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Rep), and the world premiere of Princess Mary Demands Your Attention by Aaron Holland, while producing several other award-winning shows during her tenure.

Other directing credits include School Girls; or The African Mean Girls Play (Goodman Theatre), The Color Purple (Drury Lane Theatre), P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle (Jackalope Theatre), The Total Bent (Haven Theatre w/About Face), Caroline, or Change (Firebrand Theatre w/TimeLine), Tilikum by Kristiana Colon (world premiere, Sideshow Theatre), Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (American Blues Theatre), Hairspray (Skylight Music Theatre), The Wolf at the End of the Block (16th Street Theatre), Marie Christine (Boho Theatre), Peter and the Starcatcher (Metropolis Performing Arts), The Wiz (Kokandy Productions; BroadwayWorld Award),  Xanadu (American Theatre Company), Jabari Dreams of Freedom by Nambi E. Kelley (world premiere, Chicago Children’s Theatre), American Idiot (Northwestern University); the national tour of Jesus Snatched My Edges; and Little Shop of HorrorsUnnecessary Farce, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, and The 25th…Spelling Bee, among othersat Timber Lake Playhouse where she was an Artistic Associate.  She has received 3 Jeff Awards for Best Director of a Musical. Member of SDC, AEA, SAG-AFTRA, and a graduate of Northwestern University.

Onstage, favorite roles include originating the role of Tia in the world premiere of hit play A Twist of Water by Caitlin Parrish, with Route 66 Theatre Co, which she reprised in its successful Off-Broadway run; and Joanne in RENT at American Theatre Company, directed by David Cromer.  She has also performed at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Victory Gardens Theatre, Writers’ Theatre, Next Theatre, Ravinia Festival, ShawChicago, Drury Lane Oakbrook & Water Tower, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Theatre at the Center, Peninsula Players, and many more.  She is a local cabaret artist and former member of Chicago Cabaret Professionals; her solo shows Brown & Blue and Same Fool Twice debuted successfully at Davenport’s Cabaret.  She has performed with The Second City, understudying the etc. Stage, appearing in Chicago Live! at the Chicago Theater, and performing in the shows The Second City Guide to the Opera at Lyric OperaA Girl’s Guide to Washington Politics at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC and Charmed and Dangerous at CenterStage in Baltimore.  She is the creator and co-author of Blacktacular!, a musical sketch comedy.  Television credits include ABC’s Betrayal, USA’s Sirens, and A&E Network’s The Beast with Patrick Swayze, as Demarca, “the gangsta queen of the South Side”.  It was all a blast.

Contact Information:

For Lili-Anne Brown’s contact form, click here. For representation, contact Michael Finkle at William Morris

Full Interview Transcript


Timoner: So… how did you get your start in theater? I think I read an interview you did with the Northwestern paper that said you got started there doing the Cherubs program?


Brown: Yeah that was basically my introduction to theater in general as something one could do, not just something one… I mean obviously I had seen theater my whole life but it doesn’t occur to you that that’s something you can do, in the same way it might not occur to you that you could be a monk in Tibet even though you know they exist.\


Timoner: And then when you started it was it like “this is it!” —  did you know it was an immediate calling?


Brown: Yes.


Timoner: That’s fantastic. You also — I know you started out in your career as an actor too, and then you slowly transitioned [to directing]. What was that transition like? Did you always have a calling to direction? Were you fed up with being an actor? What inspired the transition?


Brown: What inspired — haha — what inspired the transition was… So I had done some directing before.  All the directing I have done has been by necessity. I consider that I’m still directing by necessity, which is why it is a calling. Acting was a career; directing is a calling. I started directing in college by necessity, and so I directed the first black musical at Northwestern because it hadn’t been done, and that didn’t make sense in 1995. I had to produce it, and direct it, and create it, and get all the people to do all the things, and pay for the rights, and just do it. Because, no one was going to do it. No one had done it and I did not see it being done in the foreseeable future, so I had to do it, and that’s pretty much how things have always been. But I really enjoyed my acting career. I still do some acting once in a blue moon, you know, I’ll do some on-camera stuff or whatever because it’s really hard to get back on stage that’s like impossible because of scheduling. But, yeah, that career was good, but I was in rooms, you know, just saying “Why is it like this? I don’t understand why it’s like this?”.  And I’ve always just been somebody who puts their money where their mouth is, so I got sick of thinking things like “you know, that’s kind of shady, see if you can do better. Can you do better?” And I had to try. Because I don’t like to sit around and think “Well, I wouldn’t like to do it like that”; either shut the f*ck up, or do the thing, so I ended up doing the thing. And then I could not get hired to save my life as a director, so I had to create a company, and, again, go broke, and pay for the thing, and create the thing, and get all the people, and make the thing.  And then when I made the thing, people were like “Oh wow! That’s really good!” (Laughter) And I was like, cool, I’m super broke now. And that’s how my career happened.


Timoner: That’s incredible. It’s a testament to how much of a trailblazer — I love that philosophy of not asking for permission, saying “this has to be done, and no one is going to do it, so I’m going to be the one to do since no one else is going to do it” —


Brown: Oh, I asked for permission: the answer was no.  So.


Timoner: Right, right. So I guess not taking no for an answer is a better way to put it.  I’ve heard from a lot of black theater makers particularly that there is a similar story: frustration with direction that isn’t sensitive or even aware of certain portrayals, and then also certain frustrations of being rejected or typecast or put in this box.  What has been your experience with that? So much of your career, like with School Girls, with Lottery Day, and even with that first production at Northwestern, has been focused on bringing black voices and black stories to the table.  Was your [career] genesis born out of responding to these kinds of rejections? Do you think race had to do with it? I guess is the question.


Brown: I mean, I sort of don’t have the luxury of saying that race had to do with anything in my life. So I wouldn’t know.  So like, whenever anyone is speaking to me, I don’t have the luxury of saying “I wonder if they’re saying that because I’m black?”.  I’m black, and they’re saying it. So I like — we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I wasn’t black, right?


Timoner: That’s true.


Brown: So like, [shrug]. It’s kind of one of those things like “I’m in my black body, I don’t know why the world does what it does.” I’m in my black body 100% of the time.


Timoner: Yeah… So for this class, we had to read — I don’t know if you are familiar with Keith Hamilton Cobb, and American Moor? [Lili-Anne shakes her head] It’s a really fantastic play, and he’s a wonderful actor too, but he wrote it out of frustrations with Othello, particularly. And I know you were an assistant director of a 2016 production of Othello with the Chicago Shakespeare Company. What was your experience working on that play? I mean, it is so fraught with how even to put it on. Some thinkers like, I don’t know if you are familiar with Ayanna Thompson? She is also a director and she said “I don’t think Othello should be put on, because there is no way to make it not — to make it have a positive portrayal of blackness or a way that’s not charged. And —


Brown: I disagree. But also I’m not somebody that needs everything to be positive. So.


Timoner: Mhm. Yeah. What was your experience working with [Othello], or I guess Shakespeare more generally?


 Brown: So I don’t have a lot of experience with Shakespeare, because I have not, again, I guess I would have to start my own f*cking Shakespeare company if I wanted to do Shakespeare, because I have tried, a lot, for a long time, and the hurdles are literally endless.  One would say I was mentored at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  Barbara Gains is a great friend of mine, we have a fantastic relationship, I absolutely revere her. Will she hire me to direct something? Who knows! Will she ever? I don’t know. This woman has given me free Folio classes because she thought I should have them, and then I did this thing called Folio for Directors which actually wasn’t the class at all. It was basically like sitting around dishing dirt with Larry Yando, in this sort of thunder-dome of who Barbara thought was [sic] like junior directors, and if you looked around it was like everybody who was coming up at that time. And I remember being like “Oh, this is really interesting, we’re not learning anything, but like the gang’s all here.” I often wondered if there was like a little secret camera in the room to just see who was cool. Because it was literally like me, Marti Lyons, Vanessa Stalling, Scott Weinstein, Matt Hawkins, Ellie Green… like, everybody was in that room. Everyone was in one room, I was like “Wow you could blow up the next generation of Chicago theater,” like, if you roll a bomb in here, Chicago theater is dead. It was really wild. And then everybody from that class started getting assistant directing jobs, or TYA. But ain’t nobody on the mainstage, because it’s just like Steppenwolf: they don’t actually hire anybody really from here to direct on the mainstage. Not anybody. You get TYA, or you’re an assistant.  And nobody seems to notice, but it’s like, just look at it! Name one! Name one person, name somebody.


Timoner: That’s so strange.


Brown: Strange is not the appropriate word.


Timoner: Not the appropriate word, because —


Brown: It’s very deliberate.


Timoner: I guess it couldn’t not be, right? With nobody getting hired.


Brown: Right. It couldn’t not be. Which is unfortunate.


Timoner: I mean, it led to a lot of other great, I mean you didn’t let the door get closed in your face. But, you did a few assistant directing [jobs].  Did you see then, already, like “oh, there is no way to move up.”?  Was there even a thought of staying in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater or was it — ?


Brown: Well there’s no “staying in,” I’m not on the staff, so everyone you are talking to is probably freelance. So you take the job, you don’t take the job, you know? I took the job because I wanted the job. I loved working with Jonathan Munby. We had a hell of a group together, like it was a fun, fun time.  I was working with one of my dear, dear friends James Vincent Meredith, who was playing Othello.  I wanted that job. I didn’t take that job grudgingly, I don’t take any job grudgingly.  I take the job if I want the job, I don’t take the job if I do not want the job.  You know, when you go broke building your own thing, and then your board is terrible so you then have to walk away from that thing that you spent your whole life to make: the one thing you do get out of that, the one thing you get from that is that you are not afraid to just make choices and say no, because you discover that you will not die.  So I do pretty much what I want because I found out I wont die if I don’t take some job that seems really important and big and huge. Or if I don’t work for a hot minute, [sighs] it’ll suck but I will not die, I will be okay. So I took that job because I wanted it. I loved it, I had a great time. I learned so much from Jonathan Munby, he is such a genius, and he gave me a ton of responsibility because it’s what I wanted. Like, we talked before I even — we sort of interviewed each other via Zoom because he’s in London — before I took the job.  He was just like “I think we should talk” and I was like, “I love that you think we should talk before,” you know. You’re not just hiring some random person you’ve never met, we should be interviewing each other because I don’t know you either. What if I don’t want to work with you?  And we had a really good Zoom and we could just tell… And he had worked with my friend Marti and Marti had been like “he’s sweet but, ehhh, it wasn’t quite a fit.” And he and I were a great fit, so, he really gave me a ton of responsibility which is exactly what I wanted and needed, because I needed a challenge. And the great thing about working on that show was the director is going away, like he’s leaving the country. So my responsibility wasn’t just like, “train up these understudies and make sure they’re ready to go on”, as well as like be in the room and give notes and assist him; but it was like “he’s going to leave after opening night and then the show is completely yours.”  And I wanted that. And that was why I was like “this is the match I want” because I wanted to work with someone who was going away and then I would have to take over the show.  And the way they do things at Chicago Shakes[peare Theater], it’s kind of a big operation, so I learned a lot about like, oh, this is how to take over a show, and these are the things I have to do.  And it was really cool.


Timoner: That’s fantastic. So did you have a lot of creative control over that production then, the Othello production?


Brown: No, I wouldn’t say I had a lot of creative control, no.


Timoner: I see. But I’m sure you were in the discussions about it.  What were some of the discussions that went on about how to stage that, if you remember?  If you don’t, that’s fine too.


Brown: What were some of the discussions that went on about how to stage it?


Timoner: Well, I mean, just like, because there are choices to be made in directing Othello, like… In this class that this is all a part of, I mean, this project [the Black Baroque series is a long term project at the University of Chicago, it’s a scholarly project, and it’s leading to a production, at the Court [Theater], of Othello that’s going to be premiering later this year. But also, just more generally, our Professor, Professor Ndiaye, is a scholar of depictions of blackness in early modern theater, and especially Shakespeare’s black characters —


Brown: Shakespeare’s not early modern theater.


Timoner: Well, early modern English, I guess.  Shakespeare is a big figure —


Brown: In this class?


Timoner: Yes, the class is actually called “Black Shakespeare,” so.


Brown: Oh! Are you in the theater department?


Timoner: No. I’m a creative writing major, I’m an English major —


Brown: Okay, gotcha. Okay, okay, that makes tons of sense, okay cool. And this class is called “Black Shakespeare” and they’re exploring, what, black people in Shakespeare?


Timoner: And also reimaginings of Shakespeare plays, so we read Toni Morrison’s “Desdemona,” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that play, —


Brown: I’m very familiar with it! I pitched it at Chicago Shakespeare Theater!


Timoner: Really! And they denied it? [Lili-Anne eyerolls, chuckles] I mean that is, it’s a fantastic reimagining. It answers a lot of questions, but it also gets at a lot of the complications of putting on Othello, I feel like, too.


Brown: I wouldn’t call it a reimagining, right? Like, I think we have to deal with this a lot in theater, particularly with Shakespeare.  Shakespeare really lends itself to concepts. You know, Shakespeare is like a really fantastic manikin: you can put a lot of different clothes on it. And that’s not to say it’s not substantive, I think it’s just that its substance is so fundamental and basic. Like we are talking about love, betrayal, jealousy, grief, war, you know we are talking about these really fundamental things, and therefore it sort of lends itself, because I think also: if you do something like paint your nails green, like a really crazy acid-green, right, a color you’d never wear — okay well now they kind of go with everything because they go with nothing… That’s sort of the part of what like the Greeks and Shakespeare are now, right?  We are so divorced from this time period, this language, and the way these people do things, that nothing seems ridiculous, right? Like if you were doing it in 1700, you might be like “Ugh! What are you doing? She would never wear that.” Right? People would be like, “oh, you can’t change this.”  But we are so divorced from it now that like, it’s open to all sorts of change because our brains are fine with that, and in fact It helps our brains, because our brains are full of modernism. And so if you take this old, old thing, and you do it in a way that helps me translate, I’m actually going to probably like it better.  So that’s one of the reasons Shakespeare gets done the way it does. But, because we’re in theater, and people love gimmicks, and a lot of people are in theater who should not be in theater, and a lot of people in theater (like people in any other field) are very lazy, there’s a lot of theater out there that has no “why.” And you always need a why. So unfortunately a lot of these interpretations are literally like “Well, I’m doing this Shakespeare play, and I’m putting Hamlet on the moon because it’s cool, or because like I want to have these costumes, or I think it will look cool, or “oh I think people will be really intrigued” but there’s no actual like integral thinking of like, “Okay, I’m putting Hamlet on the moon because I feel like he’s isolated, or has no air,” or like whatever the hell.  People just do sh*t, they don’t have reasons, and so there is a lot of bad theater out there because there is no why, there’s just like “oh we put this concept on it and we think we’re f*cking cool.” And so, to me, one of the reasons why I would not call Toni Morrison’s “Desdemona” a reimagining is that I think it’s a totally different play. You know? I don’t think it’s like an Othello concept, I think it’s a totally different play. And I think it is a conversation about Othello, a clapback, if you will.


Timoner: Yeah, I mean I think the conversation with [Othello] I feel like is really important.  You know, I feel like the role that productions of Othello have now, or any Shakespeare play for that matter, have to be part of that conversation, too, in choosing how to put it on.  As you were just saying: putting it on the moon doesn’t really do much, you aren’t bringing out the conversation that is critical in it, or that you can make about it, or question it, or push and say “Why are we gonna put it on like this?”  I mean, in Othello, Iago, he is such an archetypal villain, and his whole deception is based on all these deeply racist tropes too, and just to put it on uncritically is almost dangerous, or feels like it could be [dangerous].


Brown: I’m not sure Othello is treated more terribly — Well, first of all Othello is about a bunch of racist people. So I feel like when people are like “Oh, Othello,” are you assuming that Shakespeare didn’t find these characters racist? Because that’s a weird assumption. Are you assuming that Shakespeare didn’t think Iago was racist? Because I think Shakespeare very clearly paints Iago as racist. I think Shakespeare very clearly paints the duke as racist.  I think Shakespeare was like “these mother*ckers are racist.” I think it’s a play about a bunch of racist people who gaslight a black man and he goes crazy.


Timoner: Yeah, exactly.


Brown: I don’t see what’s wrong with that play.


Timoner: I mean, as long as Othello is treated as a sympathetic character.


Brown: I mean, how could he not be? This f*cking play is called “Othello”! It’s his play. It ain’t “Iago.”


Timoner: Right, but he gets fewer lines than Iago, he’s the only title character of any play… his story gets framed by everybody else around him, you know, and he gets pushed —


Brown: So does Hamlet, I’m sorry.


Timoner: You know what? Fair enough, I think that’s fair.  I think that’s an important take— a really good take.  This is going back to a way earlier question, but like when you were putting it on, were these some of the kinds of conversations you were having with your troupe, with your director?


Brown: Not really. We didn’t need to have those conversations. Everybody was very clear, like, you know, when you go into a room with a bunch of really smart people who are anti-racists themselves — and this was a room full of very smart people who were anti-racists. You know, there might have been a few older cast members who weren’t as on the ball, but even they were like, if not anti-racists, at least allies, you know? It was a really well-chosen room. Jonathan Munby was not there to play around, and also he let me assist with casting. We were really able to put together a room full of people that are not just like good at saying words and looking nice on stage, because I think it takes a certain acumen and a certain attitude.  This is what we do as directors: if you want to do something right, you have to really be extremely conscientious in creating the room, like who is in the room, and so it matters what they think, and what their attitudes are, and what their personalities— it actually matters what their f*cking politics are. So if you put your room together correctly, then you don’t really have to worry about that because when it’s just like “Okay, so this is this, right?” And everybody’s like “yeah, totally.” And then you just move on! You don’t have to spend as much time. But what is wonderful about the process at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is you spend a week at table [readings], and that doesn’t really happen anywhere else. And so, yeah, of course we had those conversations, it just didn’t go like “We have to bring in an EDI [equity, diversity, and inclusion] person to like lecture you and tell you about things.” We were having conversations from a place where everybody was at the same place when we started this conversation, you know, everybody feels the same way, so, we’re having conversations like: “So, wow, these racist, I wonder what..”; we’re talking about dramaturgy and geography and language and all that stuff because it was presupposed we were already talking about these racist characters.


Timoner: And so much of that has to do with creating the room, and you mentioned earlier that part of what drew you to that production was also having that conversation with Jonathan Munby beforehand and being able to talk with him about it and start to build that rapport. You brought that up, almost hinting at—


[Interview paused]


Timoner: [We were talking about]…choosing the people, talking with your cast and crew beforehand and building that kind of trust beforehand, before you sign up for projects. Is that a rare thing? Do people just get thrown together sometimes?


Brown: Yeah. I think it’s rare. I can’t really say too much what other people do, but certainly the proof is in the pudding, so it certainly seems like that’s what a lot of other people do. And I was an actor primarily for 15 years, so I know nobody was talking to me about what I felt about anything, at an audition, like hardly ever. The only person who ever really did was David Cromer, and now we see where David Cromer is, so, haha.

Timoner: But, I mean, you do it that way, and it’s significant that you’re a real trailblazer in the productions you [choose to] put on and how you put on the productions, and like making space for black theater and black theater makers and stories that would otherwise be pushed to the margins. 


Brown: Thank you.


Timoner: But I think it’s really cool that you can do it in Chicago too…


Brown: Honestly I’m not sure where else I would do it. Chicago is a great place to do that. I mean, we’re essentially the pinnacle of theater activism is in Chicago.  Like the whole country is looking at us and was looking at us all last year particularly to sort of say something and lead the way and you know, now I’m just hoping that we have follow through, you know? Because it’s, I wouldn’t say easy to speak up, it’s not easy, but it is immediate, and it’s something you can do and do in an immediate way. What is not as immediate is th e making of the change, being the change you were calling for, and like helping with the building of that. So, that’s what I’m looking forward to here in Chicago is hoping that everyone that has, you know we started this story with me being like “I don’t want to complain” so, I don’t like that, I don’t like it in myself, so obviously I’m like “if you’re gonna complain, are you ready to make the thing? Otherwise shut the f*ck up.”


Timoner: Thank you for your time, and you know, on a Friday afternoon, it’s nice out.


Brown: I’m about to get out there, and you do the same, okay Eli?


Timoner: I appreciate you being so open! I reached out to a lot of people and I got a lot of not responses.


Brown: Alright, Eli, well you take care, okay?


Timoner: You too.


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