Could Camille A. Brown Become the First Black Woman to Win a Tony for Choreography?

The 'Hell’s Kitchen' choreographer connected with Caedra Scott-Flaherty for Observer to discuss dance, telling stories and potentially making history.

2024 Chita Rivera Awards
Camille A. Brown at the 2024 Chita Rivera Awards. Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

In the history of Broadway, there have been only seven Black female choreographers: Katherine Dunham, Mabel Robinson, Debbie Allen, Dianne McIntyre, Hope Clarke, Marlies Yearby and Camille A. Brown. Of those seven choreographers, three have received the prestigious Tony Award nomination for Best Choreography since the awards program began in 1947: Clarke for Jelly’s Last Jam in 1992, Yearby for Rent in 1996 and Brown for Choir Boy in 2019, for the Broadway revival of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf in 2022, and for Hell’s Kitchen in 2024. Of those three nominees, none have (yet) received the award.

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When Brown was nominated for a Tony Award for Choir Boy in 2019, it had been twenty-three years since a Black female choreographer had been honored with a nomination. When she directed and choreographed the revival of for colored girls in 2022, it had been sixty-seven years since a Black woman had directed and choreographed a show on Broadway (the only other time being when Katherine Dunham did so for Katherine Dunham and Her Company in 1955).

The list of Tony Award-winning choreographers is dominated by—no surprise—white men; there have been only eight female and nine Black male winners throughout the years.

You might be thinking I’ve gone off track. Isn’t this supposed to focus on Camille A. Brown? On Hell’s Kitchen? Yes, but I cannot tell you the story of how Brown became the choreographer for the Spring’s blockbuster musical Hell’s Kitchen, and how she earned her fourth Tony Award nomination for her work there, without first telling you about those dates, those numbers, those little bits of history.

So, here they are: 1947. Seven. Three. Zero. Got it? Then, let’s begin.

The making of a dancer 

Brown was born in Jamaica, Queens, to parents who weren’t dancers but loved dancing. Her father, a retired parole officer, taught salsa lessons on the side. Her mother, a retired social worker, loved musicals and took her daughter to the library so they could watch her favorites: Sweet Charity, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Dreamgirls.

As a child, Brown tried many activities—swimming, gymnastics, music—but dance won out. It lit her up inside and allowed her to express herself without having to speak in public, which she was afraid to do, as she had been teased for having “a very small voice.” She began her training at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center and the DeVore Dance Center, learning ballet, tap, African, jazz, hip hop, modern dance and pointe. Then she went on to study at the famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

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The dance studio had always been a safe and joyful space for Brown, but as she got older that changed. “This whole idea of the ‘ideal body’ came into play,” she told Observer. “I had some teachers that just blatantly told me I didn’t have the ideal body, regardless of whether I moved well or not. It was just about the body.” But then she won first place in the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts (now known as YoungArts) competition and was selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, performing for President Clinton at The Kennedy Center. “That was a really big turning point for me,” she said, “because it was body type, body type, body type, and here I am winning this national competition. It helped me see that it’s not just about the body. It’s about the intention and the person in the work.”

After high school, Brown studied contemporary dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, but when the ‘ideal body’ discrimination reared its ugly head again, Brown told her mother she wanted to transfer. Her mother suggested she finish the semester before deciding and try to find something she loved and could focus on in the meantime. It arrived in the form of a dance composition class taught by Trish Casey. “She was really interested in us,” Brown explained, “in understanding what our voices were. Not moving based on how we were taught, but on how we wanted to move. So that was my first spark of like, Oh, wow! I can have a voice. I can create my own language.” If Brown wasn’t called to an audition because she was told “the costume wouldn’t fit,” she went to a rehearsal space, “and just started dancing for myself… I had found another love which was choreography and that helped get me through college and through that headspace of don’t give up, don’t give up.”

Lucky for us, Brown didn’t give up, and after earning her B.F.A. she joined Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, A Dance Company, and began her professional career as a dancer.

Performers in streetwear dance on a stage
A moment of movement in Hell’s Kitchen. Marc J. Franklin

The making of a choreographer

Brown’s first big choreographic break came when she was one of three emerging choreographers to win the Hubbard Street 2 National Choreographic Competition in 2002. “I thought, this is exciting! This is the start of something!” But then, remembering the struggles of Black and female artists and writers throughout history, she considered taking an alias, but that idea only lasted so long because as a performer, people would eventually see her. “I knew what was out there was imbalanced and I knew that it was going to be harder for me. And I just said, Okay, well, you know what? I’m a Black female. I’m a woman. I’m going into an industry, and I just have to know what I’m walking into.”

The industry Brown first walked into was concert dance, and she quickly made a name for herself in it. Over the years, she has choreographed for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco!, Complexions, Urban Bush Women, Ailey II, Ballet Memphis and Hubbard Street II. She founded her own company Camille A. Brown & Dancers in 2006, which has won numerous awards and continues to tour nationally and internationally.

While Brown was enjoying her burgeoning career in concert dance, she kept thinking of her (and her mother’s) other love. In 2011, she entered another challenging industry: theater. Some people told her she couldn’t possibly do both concert dance and theater dance, “that one thing was going to suffer,” but she proved them wrong.

Off-Broadway credits include Toni Stone, Much Ado About Nothing, This Ain’t No Disco, Bella: An American Tale and Fortress of Solitude. Broadway credits include A Streetcar Named Desire, Once on This Island, and Choir Boy. In 2021, she became the first Black artist to direct a mainstage production for The Metropolitan Opera with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which she also choreographed. And she made her Broadway directorial debut in 2022 with the revival of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (she earned Tony Award nominations for both Direction of a Play and Best Choreography for this one).

Brown’s work in both concert dance and theater dance has won her countless awards and honors including a Dance Magazine Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Doris Duke Artist Award, a Princess Grace Statue Award, a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, a Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellowship and an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Choreography.

The making of Hell’s Kitchen

It is no surprise, then, that when director Michael Greif (of Rent fame) was thinking of a choreographer for his new project—a Jukebox musical set in 1990s NYC, inspired by Alicia Keys’ life and music—he thought of Brown. Brown was thrilled to join the “powerhouse team,” which also included Pulitzer Prize finalist Kristoffer Diaz. “The creative team gave me space to contribute to the show,” she said. “There was no ‘These are the parameters.’ It was never that. It was ‘Here’s a new song. How do you want to respond?”

“I love the show,” she continued, “because I feel like it gave me the opportunity to show different facets of my movement language.” When I asked Brown what she meant by that, she explained that not only does Hell’s Kitchen allow her to show off her “jambalaya” style made up of her many influences—tap, ballet, jazz, modern, African, and hip hop—but it lets her do so on trained dancers. Though this is her fifth Broadway show, it is the first time she was given a dance ensemble. “I grew up watching those musicals that had dance ensembles that were specifically there to dance. And that’s what I love so much about musical theater.”

She has been honing her style for twenty years, she explained, so when she was choreographing Hell’s Kitchen the question wasn’t “What do I put on stage?” but “How do I use the movement language that I already have to align with the music and the story?”

Story, for Brown, is the main difference between theater dance and concert dance. “It’s always about the story. Sometimes that means that you have to let go of things that you love to push the story forward.” But ‘story’ doesn’t necessarily mean text. Brown is influenced by the ‘choreopoem,’ like in Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls, where the choreography and the text exist together. “One is not supporting the other is not supporting the other,” she told me. “They’re in alignment, and that’s what I love.”

Performers in streetwear dance on a stage
Hell’s Kitchen is currently at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre. Marc J. Franklin

I noticed, and appreciated, this alignment throughout Hell’s Kitchen. Occasionally, particularly in the opening numbers of both acts, there is dance-as-entertainment. Top-notch ‘90s moves executed by performers who are clearly having a great time up there, who perfectly blend the cool casualness of social dance styles with the slickness of studio training. But one of my favorite moments was more abstract: during a memorial service, the guests remain still and solemn, except one man (David Guzman) who steps toward the audience and lets it all—the grief, the sadness, the fear—out through wild little kicks, contractions and arches, before returning to his seat. It felt accurate. It was exactly how I imagined everyone at that memorial service was feeling inside.

I also appreciated that no two dance numbers were the same. Each was entirely its own and deeply thought through.

When choreographing “Gramercy Park,” where the lead character Ali (played by the immensely talented Maleah Joi Moon)’s crush Knuck (played by the charming Chris Lee) is telling her about his experience living as a Black man in America, Brown sat down with the male dancers of color and talked about how they have been perceived and treated vs how they know themselves to be. She wanted the movement to go back and forth between these perceptions and the truth. “And the more I was listening to the music,” she added, “it felt like a work song. I applied that to the work that it takes to walk in a world where you are automatically perceived based on what you look like, and how exhausting that is to live through.” She wove in movements of work and hardship along with “being-arrested positions” to foreshadow an arrest that happens later in the show.

This idea struck me—foreshadowing plot through movement. This is not merely dance-as-entertainment, this is dance-as-something-new, dance that uses literary techniques to elevate story.

But she approached the ending, “Empire State of Mind” very differently. “I decided that I wanted the movement to go against the rhythm, and then I picked a moment in the music when everybody comes together. We all land and drop to the beat. Everything comes together at once.” She added, “It’s such an iconic song, so I tried to put in all that I knew about New York City in the last four counts of the show. That’s the last thing people see. So, what is the last moment? What is the last movement? What is the last gesture that you want people to walk away with?” I won’t answer that—you’ll have to see it for yourself—but I will tell you that it is iconic too.

As for what’s next for Brown, it was recently announced that she will be choreographing the Broadway revival of Gypsy starring Audra Mcdonald, set to open for previews in November. McDonald, a Black woman herself, has won 6 Tony Awards, more than any other actor in the award program’s history. I can’t wait to see it. But first, I can’t wait to find out if Brown will finally win the Tony Award she deserves.

I have hope for some new dates, new numbers and new history: 2024. Seven. Three. The first.

See Brown’s choreography in Hell’s Kitchen at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre. And watch the 76th Annual Tony Awards live on June 16.

Could Camille A. Brown Become the First Black Woman to Win a Tony for Choreography?