This week Playbill checks in with Fredi Walker-Browne, who will be seen as family matriarch Lena Younger in the Axelrod Performing Arts Center's 50th anniversary production of the musical Raisin. The musical—based on the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun, about a Black family who hope to move out of the Chicago projects in the 1950s—will play the New Jersey venue February 24-March 12.
Actor-writer-director-voiceover artist-teacher Walker-Browne is best known for triumphantly creating the role of Joanne Jefferson in the Off-Broadway and subsequent Broadway productions of the late Jonathan Larson's Rent, which went on to win the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Walker-Browne, seen in the national tours of The Lion King and Buddy, has also appeared in HBO’s Search Party, Showtime’s Emmy-winning The Big C, and in the film Maggie’s Plan.
In the interview below, the original Rent star speaks candidly about the upheaval of the last few years, including two major family losses, and the ongoing battle Black people face each day in their continued struggle for equality. Walker-Browne also shares several Rent memories and her two dream theatre roles.
What is your typical day like now?
Wow, that’s an interesting question. There's nothing typical about my day anymore. Everything has changed since my mother passed last year. She was 96, and she got ill. I went and got her, and we brought her home. And then I got hit by a car a couple of months afterwards. So from 2016 until last February 2022, it was mostly about her and my recovery.
We were living on a little farm that we were renting in Jersey, which was awesome, and it was a perfect place to be during COVID—that's the truth. And then my husband and I decided we wanted to continue that and do our homestead thing. So we had bought some land upstate, and then she passed, and then my sister passed shortly there afterwards. Both funerals were just crazily expensive, so we just decided no more rent, no more anything. We just cut base, we bought a camper, we cut down some trees, we live on our land, and we are slowly building our homestead in upstate New York. So a typical day now is anything from scheduling infrastructure workers, to looking for building materials, to hauling water to massive commutes down to Jersey—where I'm still teaching. I do two shows a year with my students, and so we're in constant rehearsal or writing for one of those shows.
I'm a voiceover artist. I do lots of commercials and things like that—so I'm constantly in bookings and auditions. I built a sound booth in our first shed—we got a shed up, and I built a small sound booth in there so I can keep working… I'm still a working actor, so there are legit auditions. There's television and film—I've done a couple of films over the last few years. And, you know, actors don't retire, we just keep looking for great parts! I'm a director as well. I directed Bob Stewart's Let the Chips Fall Where They May, a 10-minute COVID play during the online play phenomenon during the pandemic. My students and I did two movie musicals during the pandemic—that was creative and awesome. I directed Ain’t Misbehavin’, I directed Color Purple—this was all within the last few years.
And within that time, I started an album, a protest album called #1People1Planet, and three songs from it are streaming. I am just now beginning to think about getting back to it. I have all the rest of the songs outlined, but I'm starting to slowly work on the album again. I'd love to finish it sometime this year, and I'm still working on other writing projects, a couple of teleplays…
Creative people have to create, and you have to find a way to kind of squeeze all that in, as well. And so all of that is going on at the same time that life has completely flipped upside down, and we're basically starting from scratch on our homestead. But it's glorious, it's a good place to be. I'm in a very good place right now, even though there's no such thing as a typical day.
How did this role in Raisin come about?
Raisin came about because [Artistic Director] Andrew [DePrisco] called, and he was looking for somebody to play Lena. And I was like, "I'll do it!"
Although most people know A Raisin in the Sun, few have probably seen Raisin. How faithful is the musical to the Lorraine Hansberry play?
The songs are actually lifted from the dialogue of the show. It's very, very close from what I'm able to glean. This is actually my first time looking at the musical script, working on this production, and so from what I'm able to see and glean, it seems to be very, very close and very true to the original piece.
Are there any plans for future productions of this staging of Raisin?
I do not know. I would love that, but don't know.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I wrote a song titled "It Took a Law 2 Make Me Human." I wrote that song because…I would like everyone to think about the fact that it took legislation to give the world permission to consider the obvious truth—that people with my skin color are actual human beings!
Jonathan rightfully said, “No story too boring.” I can safely argue that the stories of the African Diaspora are anything but boring. However, until recently, we have only been treated to those stories from either the point of view of the oppressors or the necessary spotlight on the atrocities.
If we are all humans beings—and—human beings are all equal, what need is there to argue for the rights of one human over another?
If we truly believed that we are all humans together of equal status, then “Human Rights” would be intrinsic. The discussion of them would be unnecessary, downright laughable even…But, deep down, we don’t believe that. And so, sadly, it continues to be necessary to tell the stories of the past and ongoing atrocities. It is also necessary, however, to tell the stories of the triumphs.
I would like today’s producers to be as brave as the original producers of both A Raisin in the Sun and Raisin and take more chances on the stories they are otherwise afraid of. I would like them to allow the people who lived those stories to share their truth with the world. I would like them to have more faith and let the audience surprise them (as they usually do) with their response.
There are limitless stories of the triumph and resilience of BIPOC Americans who have overcome insurmountable odds to make the society we live in today. A Raisin in the Sun is one of them. An American family striving to achieve the “American Dream” told from the point of view of an American woman who happened to be Black. When stories are told correctly and with truth, everyone should be able to see themselves in it. Especially Americans—most of whose stories begin with someone in their family trying to make something out of nothing against all odds and society’s prejudice. I would like audiences to imagine Lena and her family as Irish or Italian immigrants who faced some of the same bigotry that descendants of Africa endured. I would like you to ask yourself how could some of those same people, after facing that same hatred, still allow themselves to become part of the oppressor class when it became convenient for them?
The sad part is, after all the years, all the murders, all the movies, all the marches—there are still people who do not accept other people as human. We are still trying to legislate the humanity of all manner of individuals. We are still wrapped up in resource-wasting stupidity like titles and labels.
In my lifetime, I’ve gone from “Negro” to “Black” to “Person of Color” to “African-American” to “BIPOC.” But I still have to worry about getting shot by cops on the way home like a common n***er. I don’t care what you call me. I care what you pay me! I care about living where I want to live in peace. I care about access to clean water and air! I care about my children getting a chance to grow up! I care about getting home alive at the end of the day. And if that ain’t “human,” I don’t know what is!
I would like to encourage everyone, everywhere to view the world through the lens of what we have in common, which far outweighs our differences. And seek comfort in our shared humanity. #HumanFamily #CantWeAllJustGetAlong #1People1Planet
Can you share one onstage and one backstage memory of your time in Rent?
Great onstage memory: opening night, “We’re Okay,” out-of-body experience. Watching myself do a solo spotlight number on Broadway, which had been my lifelong dream, acknowledging that reality and then jumping back into myself to do my job.
Terrible onstage memory: 200th show, tripping over that stupid electric cord and the phone booth falling on top of me, body in terrible pain to this day.
Backstage: singing "Santa Fe" backstage. Because when we were downtown [at New York Theatre Workshop], we doubled a bunch of roles. And singing "Santa Fe" offstage was one of the things we did, and I just continued to do it on Broadway because I just loved it. Love, love that music. Love that song.
Did you watch the Netflix version of tick, tick… BOOM!? What was your reaction to the film?
Tick, tick… BOOM! was glorious, glorious, glorious. It brought Jonathan [Larson] to life. [Andrew Garfield] deserved that Oscar—he definitely deserved that nomination. Oh my gosh. And, I got to see Lin [Manuel-Miranda, who directed that film] at Without You the other night. And it was like, just, awesome, glorious work.
Other than Rent, what would you say is your favorite theatrical experience (as a performer)?
Favorite theatrical experience outside of Rent, hands down, is Rafiki [in The Lion King]. As an African-American actress, I cannot begin to explain how amazing and fulfilling and enriching playing that role was. It's the only role I'd ever do again. In a heartbeat. I'd see that show again, I’d do that show again. I love, love that show. And, I love that role and everything that it brought to me.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
I learned that I am stronger than I even thought I was.… You know the old saying you don't get more than you can handle? What I have had to handle is mind-splitting at times, and the fact that I'm still standing makes me incredibly grateful. I'm so happy to be alive. I'm so happy to be working. I'm so happy to be a creative entity. I am just delighted and grateful at all times.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
I write screenplays—I have several that I am pitching. I have a couple of documentaries underway and a short film adaptation of Chicken & Egg Soup written by the great Bob Stewart, a playwright that everyone should know.
Do you have a dream stage role?
Hands down, Mama Morton [in Chicago]. Second to that would be Mrs. Lovett [in Sweeney Todd]. And, you know, a real close second!
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
I don't necessarily want to recommend any specific organization except, of course, The Entertainment Community Fund—please support The Entertainment Community Fund. But I do think that it is good that everyone find an organization that they want to support. I think it's good to look out into the world and see who needs help and if you can help them. Because it feels good to do it.