Camille A. Brown Is Bringing '90s New York Back to Broadway in Hell's Kitchen | Playbill

Special Features Camille A. Brown Is Bringing '90s New York Back to Broadway in Hell's Kitchen

The choreographer used to dance on her way to school. Now she's bringing those same movements to the new Alicia Keys musical.

Camille A. Brown Heather Gershonowitz

New York is not only the concrete jungle where Camille A. Brown’s dreams were made; it’s also the city where they are coming true. In 2022, the Jamaica, Queens native made history as the first Black woman to choreograph and direct a play on Broadway (for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf) in over six decades. This season, she returns to the Main Stem as choreographer for the rhythm-laced Alicia Keys musical Hell's Kitchen.

Dance has always been Brown’s preferred language. Admittedly soft-spoken as a child, movement became the way to express herself. She went to LaGuardia High School and rose through the ranks of concert dance. But in her teen years, she came face-to-face with disheartening criticisms that went beyond missed steps or forgotten moves. “Suddenly the ‘ideal body’ came into play. Some teachers would tell me I'm not going to fit the costumes, my thighs were too big, my butt was too big. In college, I was put on diets,” says Brown.

Discouraged but not dismayed, Brown continued to perform—dancing with Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE for several years—and went on to add two new titles to her repertoire: director and choreographer of her own company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Then in 2021, Brown became the first Black artist to direct a mainstage show at the Metropolitan Opera, with Fire Shut Up in My Bones.

If this story of breaking through adversity and charting one’s own path sounds familiar, that’s because it happens to be the same one at the center of Hell’s Kitchen. The musical, which uses the hit songs of Grammy winner Alicia Keys, begins performances at the Shubert Theatre March 28 and opens April 20. It follows 17-year-old Ali (played by Maleah Joi Moon), a burgeoning singer-songwriter balancing personal ambition with familial expectations.

READ: Alicia Keys Has Been Working on Her Musical Hell's Kitchen For a Decade

Camille A. Brown Heather Gershonowitz

The show takes place in ’90s New York, a scene Brown knows in her bones. “I loved that [Hell’s Kitchen] was about this determined girl living in New York City during the time that I grew up,” she relays. “Alicia and I are around the same age, so I immediately connected to that.”

Brown performed some of the same vivid moves on display in Hell’s Kitchen as a teenager taking the subway to school. The distinctive energy of that period already lived inside her, but carefully translating those social dances to the stage and marrying that with Keys’ well-known songs (such as “Empire State of Mind” and “Girl on Fire”), became the real challenge.

“I wanted to give people all the feelings they have when they think about that specific time and hear these famous songs. But I wanted them to see it in the movement of bodies,” explains Brown.

She became a stickler for maintaining the cultural integrity of that golden era of hip hop in Manhattan. Take the musical’s opening number, “The Gospel.” During it, the Shubert stage bursts to life as Ali sings about the world outside her apartment. What looks like a rapturous (yet cohesive) explosion of different dance styles is still the careful result of Brown’s contextualization work: Who is each person outside of Ali’s doors? What is his/her/their vibe? How would they move?

Maleah Joi Moon and company of Hell's Kitchen Joan Marcus

“Choreography is the structure, right? But on top of that, everyone had the freedom to make choices,” Brown notes. “That’s what social dance really is. It's like when we do the electric slide. Everybody knows you want to do that 1, 2, 3 step. But how we do it is completely different. I encouraged the dancers to give me as many choices as possible, but I always shared the intention. They needed to know the exact era and place we were in. We can have fun, but everything still needed to live within the ’90s.”

She trusted her own creative instincts just as much as she trusted those of her dancers —a great thing seeing as social dance thrives on this kind of spirit-led connection to movement. A musical break in that same opening song, for example, inspired Brown’s incorporation of step—a historically Black form of expression in which people stomp, clap, and chant to create a rhythmic sound.

“I just knew: Oh! This would be a great opportunity to do some fast, mixed footwork. Great, that already exists in step dance. So, let’s mix that inside of the groovier choreography. Now, let’s mix the groove inside of the social dances. Eventually, the different techniques were no longer separate; they just kept accumulating. And Ali gets swept up in all of that.”

In a way, nothing is more New York. The weaving of different funks and languages into one fabric is what we’re all about. And no one gets that better than Brown. Her work here is extra personal and therefore, extra passionate. Or as she exclaims: “Now that I get to do a show that is about my city. I'm fully like, ‘Yes, let's do this!’ I can't let New York City down.”

Below, see Brown discuss how she spoke her career into existence, in a roundtable discussion with director Jessica Stone, actor Amber Iman, and playwright Heidi Schreck.

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