Waafrika 123 Featured Artist: Brenda Bell Brown

What roles do you play in the production of Waafrika 123?

I primarily play the role of the irrepressible Mama Mugabe—first wife to the Chief—and also lend my voice to that of nameless village vixen and rabble rousers.

Without giving anything away, what does Mama Mugabe bring to the story? What’s she all about?

I entered into the development of my role as Mama Mugabe with the intent to meet this woman on her own terms. In order to make my performance believable, I had to find every aspect of personal affinity that we shared. One of the most admirable attributes that Mama Mugabe possesses is her insistence upon “tradition.” Holding fast to tradition, she uses it as a standard for individuals and the entire community to live by. Over the years, the defining aspects of communal tradition may have gotten confused with personal gain by this extremely manipulative and powerful woman. One cannot help but admire the way that she keeps everyone on course with her innate sense of survival and insistence on tradition.

Why are the stories told in Waafrika 123 important to share with the community?

These stories need to be told to address a fundamental aspect of difference. Difference is a prime descriptor of nature, of human nature. Lack of reason leads to denial and disruption of this beautiful aspect of life. In Waafrika 123, playwright Nick Mwaluko gives voice to many reasons to celebrate difference and arguments for the beauty of minds and bodies, in form as born or trans-formed, existing on their own terms. It is the debilitating, irrational non-reason that provides the dramatic tension. I hope that the community leaves the play scene with indelible commitment to act on the goodness, not the ill-will, that we share.

What has been challenging or rewarding about working on this production?

Our director Lisa Marie Brimmer is most insightful, brave and generous. As an actor who is treading socio-cultural waters that are not personally experienced in my day-to-day life, it is most beneficial to have guidance from a director who understands what may cause triggers of fear and trepidation, who also possesses the tools to work the actor through it. Reflecting on the rehearsal experience, we have gone through phenomenal cultural immersion exercises to better feel and sense the characters that we are growing. That type of ensemble development has to be intentionally driven. I am glad Lisa has the keys.

What sort of artistic experience are you bringing to this production? Have you been involved with 20% Theatre in the past?

I have not been involved with 20% Theatre in the past. However, I have been in the company of, witnessed the work of, and have worked with some of the artists who comprise this company and its supporters over the 20+ years that I have lived and worked in the Twin Cities arts community. These are hopeful times that we live in, during this time when there is such a commitment to acting out heretofore untold stories via companies like 20%. Industry-wide, money-wise, the arts world has not changed: As a Black American, female artist, I still work to leverage the same monies for the technical, administrative, creative arts work that I do that is commensurate with the monies made by my white, male counterparts. Theatre groups like 20% give me hope and incentive.

What social issues are important to you and how do they inform the art you create?

Reparations. Monetary and societal equanimity. Indigenous celebrations of culture and spirit. Separate but equal housing and schooling. Red-line reform. I could go on and on about what concerns me and I have done so in my poetry, my scripts for stage and screen, my broadcast journalism and my visual art for no less than fifty years.

What other artists or performances have inspired you over the years?

While recently sharing the love that I have for writing with my students of critical writing at the Saint Thomas University Dougherty Family College, I shared the title of a book, Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau. I told my students that, after reading Texaco, I was so moved by its contents that I stopped reading other people’s work for over five years. I so wanted to replicate the feeling that I got from reading the book in my own work, that I could not be distracted by any other until then. That instance being most significant, others include the sermons of Southern preachers, a child’s recitation of The Night Before Christmas, as well as the viewing of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (family fave), and the folk who sing the blues down home in Memphis, TN.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I am working to fund a summer to work on the edit and production of several works primed for the can for way too long— books of poetry and prose, films, scripts and visual work. All I need is a summer of concentrated, uninterrupted time. It would be divine.

Aside from this production of Waafrika 123, how do you spend your time? What are some of your hobbies or passions in life?

I am loving my work as a recently-appointed Adjunct English Professor for Saint Thomas University Dougherty Family College. Being that I know no set time for work or play during the day, I am in continuous creative mode: writing, editing, producing, envisioning. Most everything I do is a joy, and therefore is a hobby or passion in life. That is how art was gifted to me by my mother and my father and others—as an everyday life occurrence, a natural propensity in life. There is one creative act that brings me calm in the most motored and unthinking way: sewing, primarily, a straight stitch.

Describe your pre-performance ritual if you have one.

Prayer for strength and clarity, among other significant things.