Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Renea Brown

Artist Profile by Ralph Brown


Renea S. Brown is a classically trained Shakespearean actress. A native Kentuckian, Renea developed a deep love of theatre and Shakespeare at an early age, attending the School of the Creative and Performing Arts for her secondary education, majoring in Theatre and Dance. While she was there, she fell in love with the sonnets and plays of the Bard. Renea studied Theatre Arts at the University of Louisville and graduated from the The Academy of Classical Acting at George Washington University. She also studied Beijing Opera and Chinese Folklore in the Shandong Providence in Jinan, China. She was the first Black woman to perform at the Island Shakespeare Festival. On the stage, she has performed in several Shakespearean plays including Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing, Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, and Cassio in Othello. Renea is certified in stage combat and intimacy. Furthermore, she is quite skilled in dance, gymnastics, ballet, flying/suspension, and dialects.

Contact Information


Phone: (703) 349-1649

Instagram: @therealdarklady

Full Interview Transcript


Ralph Brown:  I think that’s really interesting. That’s really cool. I guess going back to realizing your space as a black person in Shakespeare and his plays, did that change how you approach roles or how you came into performing his plays in general?


Renea Brown:  I know, it’s so interesting. I always try to find as much of myself or my family or my friends through the text, and sometimes I’ll find it. This is something that I do a lot with my text. My mom has this habit. I’d say something like, “I want to go to the football game and then after that’s over, I’m going to go to Applebee’s with my friends” and she’ll repeat “Applebee’s with your friends? Do you think you’re grown or whatever?” But she has a habit of repeating the last thing that I said and then saying something else. I don’t know why, but I started to do that with my texts. So if someone says…. What is that line? “Come, can you speak with an idle tongue?” Oh, no, no, that’s going to bother me because I can’t remember if it’s Gilgo, “We speak for the wicked tongue”, but I usually repeat whatever my scene partner just previously said in the same way. I speak like this “Now, actually”, and then I say my life so that it becomes more real to me and it’s also something I find a lot more pulcher. Actually, I think a lot of us do that. “You say you want to do want?” and then we respond. So I try to find pieces like that. And I find a lot through the plays, especially in the comedies, so I guess that’s a way of it just naturally happening as opposed to me saying I have to add on this layer of whatever we think blackness is or call blackness. I’m already bringing that because of who I am. Does that make sense? You know what I mean?


Ralph Brown:  Yeah, it does make sense. And I guess that actually opens up something very interesting, because you talk about how you see your family or friends and the text and I guess it makes it a more real space or like a more interesting, more relatable space in that sense, because you can pinpoint certain relationships. Is that fair to say?


Renea Brown:  Absolutely. I found it first when I first started reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I got older and I thought, “Oh, this is actually like Helena and Hermi[a] are, that’s my relationship with me and a friend, one of my best friends”. Her name is Sinora. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, she’s definitely the Hermia and I’m the Helena”. So I imagine having those conversations with her. How do I talk when I’m with her? Of course, I’m like hitting her while I’m laughing or if we can connect with each other from across the room without saying anything. So usually that’s where that comes into to play, if I find family, friends in the text I go, “Oh, I can picture them saying this”. So, I try to work around it, but that’s the seed and of course, it grows over time in rehearsal, but yeah.


Ralph Brown:  Was there a role for a Shakespeare play that you auditioned for in the past that you wish you’d gotten?


Renea Brown:  Yeah, I never thought that I wanted to play Juliet until I auditioned for it and did a really, really good audition for it. Not the production where I was talking about the student matinees, but I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I really understand this play, but I understand Juliet a lot more now that I’m older. She’s not just some, naive, dumb kid. She’s incredibly smart, really, really witty. So I auditioned for that and was like, “I’m going to book this” and I did not. I did not book Juliet. So that’s one thing where I was like “ugh”. But usually I don’t…well, the way that I do auditions or have been given auditions is usually someone might just give me a plain offer like we want you to play Miranda in The Tempest. And I say, “Great, I’ll do that”. But usually a theater will say we’re doing The Tempest. So I’m just going to go in with the monologue and they’re going to place me wherever they see fit, wherever I fit best.


Ralph Brown:  So is that at a theater that you have a repertoire with or a place that knows your work the best?


Renea Brown:  It varies. Usually theaters that I have never worked for, that’s how I’ll go about it. Well, now, we’re sending in tapes a lot. But even before the pandemic, if it was a theater that I haven’t worked at and I see that they’re doing King John, I know deep down in my heart that I want to play Philip the Bastard, but I know that I’m just going to go in with a piece as closely as I can that shows I can play this role. I’m not going to go into an audition for King John with a Juliet monologue. So usually that’s how it goes. But sometimes some theaters will say we are doing Titus Andronicus and everyone is cast except for Aaron the Moor. So I go, “Oh yes. So I’m going to go in for that role”.


Ralph Brown:  What is your dream role to play in a Shakespeare play?


Renea Brown:  Oh, I have to give you my top five. There’s not just one, I can name a couple of them. So I guess in no particular order: Hamlet, Tamora, Titus Andronicus, Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, Philip the Bastard in King John and Oh, and Emilia. I want to play Emilia in Othello. Which, I’m thinking about a previous question that you asked. Usually when we think about Othello, we just go, “Oh, Othello is the only black guy”. Well, he’s the only black person in the play and I found that I always wanted to challenge that and go, “Well, I’m a black woman. Where could I fit in this show?” So I’ve always wanted to play Amelia Iago’s wife because I just think that that dynamic is interesting. If he talks about how he hates the Moor, what does it look like if his wife is black? Is he with her because he fetishizes black women? Is he with her because he really does love her, but he’s intimidated by this black man in power over him? I think things like that are interesting. And also I play Cassio and Othello, which makes total sense and there was nothing about it where I was like, “That can’t happen”. Cassio and Othello are like this, so.


Ralph Brown:  I was just going to say in the audience, they saw it that way as well?


Renea Brown:  Yeah, so that production, I was actually really shocked that we saw…. So, let me start from the beginning. I never worked at this theater, Island Shakespeare Festival, but I knew one of the directors, we were doing three shows in rep and I knew one of the directors was going there directing Sense and Sensibility. So she was like, I want you to audition for this, but you’re going to have to audition for the full rep because there’s three shows. So I sent him an audition, I audition with her for Sense and Sensibility, and then I sent in a video for the two Shakespeare plays for Othello and Twelfth Night and I was like, “Oh, if anything for Othello, they’ll probably put me in the ensemble or something like that and I’ll play whatever in Twelfth Night. But I got an email saying, ‘Great, we want you to read these sides for Cassio’. And I thought, ‘Wow, how interesting. I never had that thought come to my mind of ‘Oh Cassio can be black””. So the response from the audience was much more powerful or I felt more and I was more drawn in.


Renea Brown:  I was compelled, more compelled by the relationship between Othello and Cassio and the hatred that Iago has for Cassio. So it adds a whole other layer to the show. So then I start to think of different things, like where the shows do involve race, what happens if we insert black person here; so, if Tamora in Titus Andronicus is usually not played by a black woman because her lover Aaron the Moor is a Moor. But I think they are the outsiders of the play. They both come from the same place. What would happen if they did look the same? So, yeah, that is something that I’m definitely interested in now. We are shifting into a place where the theater goes, “Oh, you know what? Actually, everyone can play every role.” You would think that we would have gotten there a while ago. But that is something that I keep in the back of my mind. Like, why would I not go for this show? Why would I not go for this role? So, yeah.


Ralph Brown:  You actually answered one of the questions I was going to ask. I was going to ask, “You make space for blackness in Shakespeare’s plays, but what happens when you run up against something that kind of goes against the creation of that space?” So that was a really interesting answer that you gave with Aaron and what happens when you put two black people together in that relationship. So that’s interesting. This has more to do with the style and performance of the theater. What are ways in which you combine the traditional text of Shakespeare with more modern or contemporary stylings of theater and performance?


Renea Brown:  That usually depends on where the show is being set. So if we’re doing Taming of the Shrew and we’re setting it in the 1500s, then I know my posture, I know that the costume is going to be representing that, so I then have to adjust. Do I have a fan? Well, now I need to learn fan language because that’s the way that some people, some women communicate through fan language. But if we’re setting Taming of the Shrew in 2021, then I know I’m probably going to be wearing a mask or I know I might be wearing something like this. My hair is probably going to be like this as opposed to in a wig or curled a certain way. So that’s usually how I decipher that. But I…I feel like I want to whisper this. I prefer classical work over contemporary work. I feel like there’s a never-ending quest with classical work. Six months after doing a show, I’m on the highway driving and I go, “Oh, my gosh. That’s actually how I should have said that line”. Just random things click onto my brain about a performance that I’ve done or performance that I’ve seen. But with contemporary work, it seems it’s much more straightforward. People just say, “I think you’re beautiful”, as opposed to, “Your eyes, when they glimmer in the moonlight, the beans reflect off the water”.  Shakespeare, his parentheticals are beautiful. So I’m always looking up words, I’m always looking of the root. You know, if this was a saying during the Elizabethan times, where did that come from? There’s always a never ending search with the classical work, I think. When you do contemporary work, it’s very much what you see is what you get here


Ralph Brown:  So it’s almost like a variety of interpretation, almost with the classical works.


Renea Brown:  Yeah.


Ralph Brown:  I have to ask you about your social media and Shakespeare, I noticed on your page you do like a lot of little Shakespeare sayings on your posts. What do those do for you and what does that do for the people who view your pages?


Renea Brown:  I have a lot of friends who are not involved in the theater and sometimes, and this has happened over years, but sometimes they’ll just say, “Why, I don’t get it. I don’t get Shakespeare” or, “I don’t understand why you’re crazy about it or who can understand that?”. So the posts are just a way to show the use of the language in our current time or an example of what language may represent. I don’t know if I still have this poster, but a couple of years ago, actually it was Romeo and Juliet, and I was doing the squats up and down the steps and someone had filmed me backstage just doing these jump squats up and down the steps. I had just finished reading something for an audition and one of the lines was something about that person having a big but and I was like, “Yes, what a perfect caption to put under this”. So it’s sort of a shot of Shakespeare, where people go, “Oh, that actually went down easier than what I thought. This isn’t something that is actually as distant as I thought”. So I’ll have some of my friends, like, laugh or make a comment and I’m like, “See, you don’t understand it because you think this is funny or you understand it because you said this in response”. So that’s why I started doing it. But there really isn’t a day where I don’t think about or I’m not thinking about Shakespeare because I’m either teaching it or I’m doing it or I have a question about something that I’ve seen in a play, so I need to look it up myself. So I’m constantly, constantly thinking about it. I’m writing a play that has to do with Shakespeare and my identity, actually. So, I start to do research. It’s just an ongoing thing. So I will wrap that into my social media because it is a part of me.


Ralph Brown:  Does that play have a name? How far along are you in the production?


Renea Brown:  Well, I’m not sure. I always want to call everything the dark lady, but I think right now, the working title is Masks. I call it Masks because I wonder how many different masks do people see me from the outside looking in? I wonder about identity, like how people may perceive the work that I do. Why are you always so obsessed with this dead white man’s work? I feel like we’re in a time where…. This is a special time because we are saying, “You know what, we need to introduce more people of color, more women, more people, non binary playwrights and stories into schools and we should take away a lot of the classical work that we study, i.e. Shakespeare”, and I am not a fan of that. I think you can introduce new work and also keep Shakespeare. But I’ve had these conversations with people and they get really upset when I say “No, I don’t think we should, I don’t think we should get rid of it”. So then I start to wonder, “What do they think of me?” And some people will say, “You don’t ever feel like you’re shucking and jiving on stage doing this white man’s work”. So it just makes me think about the different masks that people see me wear. What would my identity, Renea, my identity as Renea the person be if I just stopped doing Shakespeare completely? Like, then what would I do? Because I don’t do a lot of contemporary work and I do audition for contemporary work! But I don’t book it often, but like, then [inaudible] without it. So it’s very much finding itself. This is very new, but it’s finding itself to be about my identity in Shakespeare. How does Shakespeare see me? How do people from the outside looking in see me? How do I see myself without Shakespeare?


Ralph Brown:  That was a really good answer. There’s a question that I want to ask as you’re talking about how others see you and question your space on stage. I’m just wondering this disdain that you get for sticking up for Shakespeare, does it come from white people, from black and brown people? Where does it come from?


Renea Brown: It comes from both, interestingly enough. And I can understand, I’ve had this conversation with other black actors. I understand we do need to have more texts in our curriculum written by us, but I don’t think that it must push out something else as valuable as Shakespeare. I’m actually really interested in pairing Shakespeare and adaptations. There’s a play called Fat Ham written by James Iams, and it’s basically like an adaptation of Hamlet. He is a black man and it is a black family. So I go, “Well, what’s the problem with reading Hamlet and reading this play and talking about the similarities and the differences?” So I’ve had that conversation. We do still have the conversations with the Woke whites where white people very much try to tell me about myself or about my struggle and “We have to change this”. I let them know, “I understand your point of view. However, I think I just think it isn’t beneficial”. It isn’t as beneficial as people think, just getting rid of Shakespeare. Now, I also understand, like, we actually don’t need to read the Comedy of Errors in AP Lit. So really what I think we should keep in the schools are Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. Those are like the three staples. I think that we don’t we don’t have to get rid of them.

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