Artist Interview: Actor Phillip Brown
THE ROYALE actor on the joys, challenges, and opportunities of this unique and moving production
“To be a good actor, I believe it’s the most sacrificial art form. You have to give all of your mind, body, soul, and spirit,” says Phillip Brown, star of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale — onstage at Lantern Theater Company now through December 11, 2022. And according to Brown, the lead role of Jay Jackson “demands that you give all of your mind, body, soul, and spirit. Physically it’s the most challenging. Mentally it’s the most challenging. And emotionally, I think it’s the most challenging, all wrapped up together.” In a wide-ranging chat with Lantern dramaturg Meghan Winch, Brown discussed the joys, challenges, and opportunities of this unique and moving production.
The play’s Jay Jackson is inspired by real-life boxing trailblazer Jack Johnson, the first Black boxer to win the Heavyweight Champion of the World title, and playing a role with roots in reality is something Brown takes seriously. “I was familiar with Jack Johnson as an African American hero,” Brown said. “I’m thrilled to be in a place to bring light and to magnify this gloriously magnificent and relevant, heroic life.” And although the play’s Jay Jackson is a fictionalized version of Johnson, it was important to Brown to combine both the character on the page and the history that inspired him. “I researched Jay Jackson through digging deeper into Jack Johnson, and was given the liberty early on by Zuhairah [McGill, director of this production] — the brilliant, brilliant visionary Z — to take what I could take from Jack Johnson. And she gave me liberty to honor what was in the script, as it relates to Jay Jackson’s life, and to be true to his journey in the play.”
For a play that calls for so much from Brown, he is grateful for the team that brings the play to life with him. “I would just say that I’m immensely grateful to the Lantern for selecting this play…I want to thank them for bringing Z on board to direct it. I think they have a great director. And for Z casting these wonderful actors, all of whom are breathing such brilliant life into these characters and really, really giving it their all on stage. I mean, you talk about sacrificial acting, everyone’s giving of themselves in this beautiful way,” Brown said.
Brown is a performer, director, writer, and more. But bringing Jay Jackson to life — and by extension, raising consciousness of Jack Johnson—is a natural extension of another major part of Brown’s life: educator. He is the Upper School Theater Director at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, where he teaches students of varying levels of experience about performance and theater. “For me, teaching has always been a natural extension to performing. As far back as my college days at the University of the Arts and doing street theater, I started teaching theater arts to underprivileged kids, in particular in the inner city, who did not have art programs,” Brown said. “Wherever I landed, whether it was in New York or LA or back here in Philadelphia, it seems like teaching has always been the nucleus of my creative journey.”
For Brown, the power of teaching theater — and of performing — goes well beyond the applause to influence life offstage as well. “My approach has always been using theater and teaching the craft of acting to help young people make discoveries about themselves that would build confidence, self-esteem, such that they can go out and be successful in whatever they’re called to do in life,” Brown said. “It’s about finding your voice, loving your body, and understanding the importance of empathy and teaching empathy. I think acting is one of the best crafts to be able to teach that.”
Theater’s ability to inspire empathy, to help audiences and performers alike consider new perspectives, is at the core of what Brown hopes audiences take away from The Royale. “I think, first and foremost, I want audiences to know who Jack Johnson was…And perhaps in the revelation of who he is or was, to ask a question: How many other Black heroes are there — or that we don’t know that are in our history books — who have not been celebrated?” Brown said. “I hope they pause for a minute and they imagine Jack Johnson’s life and all that he said and did in the context of being the first, because being the first means that there was no one that he could look to prior to his experience who had done it, where he could say it’s possible.”
Johnson (and the play’s Jackson) being first also meant facing unimaginable danger and calling on equally unimaginable courage, another opportunity for empathy that Brown hopes audiences can seize. “For Jack Johnson to be in America in the 1900s, 1910, just coming out of reconstruction, just post-Civil War, slaves had only been free for a second on paper. Jim Crow was flourishing. Black people were hanging in trees and being dismembered and houses burned,” Brown said. “For Jack Johnson to say, ‘No, I’m not only going to do it, I’m going to do it on the biggest stage possible, I’m going to fight the best of the opposition race, of who is considered and was considered, until yesterday, my master, figuratively speaking. I’m going to go into the ring and I’m going to knock him out publicly, although I may die as soon as I step out the ring. Or before the fight’s finished. I may die. Someone will shoot me or take my life before I’m finished, and people while watching the fight will surely die.’ And after, pause for a minute and imagine to be the first. And to have all that in your head, but still do it. And then flaunt it, not hide.”
“That part for me is what I think about time and time again, how to tap into that fearlessness,” Brown continued. “He knew the consequences of his actions…And it wasn’t to say he didn’t love his brothers, of course, and his people, but it was to say, ‘I’m not even going to allow the fear of that to stop what I know will be a bigger blessing and ultimate liberation to my people.’…I don’t think the play will run long enough for me to be able to get my head around that mindset. But I’m blessed to have the opportunity to try to embody this man and to allow his legacy and spirit to move through me for this performance.”
More reading: Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the World — The inspiring figure who inspired Marco Ramirez’s The Royale
Lantern Theater Company’s Philadelphia premiere production of The Royale by Marco Ramirez is onstage November 10 through December 11, 2022, at St. Stephen’s Theater. Visit our website for tickets and information.