This year’s Tony Awards could turn out to be a historic evening for Black women in the realm of dance. According to Forbes, choreographer and artistic director Camille A. Brown is the first Black woman to be nominated in the Best Choreography category in 23 years.
Brown—who is the founder of the New York City-based Camille A. Brown & Dancers dance company—is nominated for her work on the play Choir Boy. The play, which was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, chronicles the experiences of a Black student who leads a gospel choir. Brown intertwined the storyline with powerful forms of dance expression. She says the premise of the play prompted her to pull inspiration from South African dance traditions, Step dance routines, and Juba dance which was started by Africans who were enslaved.
“When I was hearing the spirituals [in Choir Boy] I was thinking about the historical context of them because they’re over 200 years old, but then looking at the men [in the cast] and how they are walking in life in 2019,” she told Deadline in an interview. “I told them that this was a time for them to be unapologetic on stage, and to step into what all this means. I told them, you’re carrying this historical information but you’re also carrying who you are. It’s not just about me coming in and putting in steps – there has to be the need and intention, an urgency, this combination of working and moving our bodies in space and having a dialogue.”
The award-winning choreographer has had a storied career in the dance industry. She attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts and went on to dance with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Brown’s dance company has performed internationally and she has led the choreography for shows that include Once on This Island and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert!.
Brown says being nominated for the Tony Award is meaningful and speaks volumes about the need for more representation in dance and theatre. “When I wanted to do theatre, I didn’t see many reflections of myself. This Tony nomination is so important to me, and has deep meaning, because the last black woman that was nominated in this category was Marlies Yearby in 1996, for Rent,” she said. “I have I hope that a young black girl who wants to choreograph for theater but doesn’t necessarily see many black females can see a reflection of herself through me.”
The 73rd Tony Awards will air on June 9.