On an unseasonably hot September afternoon, Sheyenne Brown ’09 eats fried Oreos on the front deck of a Manhattan restaurant where she used to work. It’s right down the street from Columbia University, where she’s currently a third-year student in the graduate acting program.
She waves at a classmate who passes by and chats with a couple of the servers she hasn’t seen in a while. Except for her four years in Vermont, she’s always lived in New York; this is her turf.
“I entered the Columbia program thinking I wanted to do the classics, to do Shakespeare,” she says in her best, exaggerated Elizabethan accent. “But now I know I’m more drawn to projects where I interview people and tell their stories.”
Brown says she found her voice during her senior year at Middlebury in a winter-term solo-performance class taught by theater professor Dana Yeaton.
Yeaton recalls Brown as a generally quiet presence in his class, but that impression shifted when students were asked to prepare a three-minute piece showcasing a character of their choosing, a “what can you show me in three minutes?” type of thing.
Brown chose Oscar Grant, the young black man shot in the back by a police officer in Oakland, California, in 2009.
“She just walked out and dropped a bomb on the room,” remembers Yeaton. “She was Oscar Grant from the other side of the grave, all this male energy in a hoodie. She was big, and Sheyenne Brown is not big. Her character was enormous. She stunned us.”
Brown’s newfound comfort with solo material led her to explore an unorthodox theater-thesis project, A Colored Girl’s College Tour, which she performed not in one of the College’s theater spaces, but at 51 Main, the bar and restaurant on Main Street in town. The show took a hard, sometimes uncomfortable look at Brown’s experience as a black woman at Middlebury, mirrored with her much-different but equally significant semester at the historic black college Spelman, which turned out nothing like she expected. College Tour was something most in the community had never seen before.
“I was afraid to ask people for help. That’s why I did it at 51 Main,” Brown says. “I wanted people to just go down there, get their drinks, and there’s this one chair. Just me. A lot of that came out of fear. Fear that I couldn’t do what I wanted.”
The “talkbacks” with the audience following the show ended up being as long as the show itself, with President Liebowitz requesting an encore performance after the brief run sold out.
Yet after this success, Brown wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She was hired by Teach for America and placed at a public school in Newark, but she missed performing.When her contract was up, she enrolled at Columbia, one of only 18 students accepted into the acting program. Now in her third year, Brown has a second thesis production coming up, another solo performance—exploring her pending motherhood.
Seven months pregnant with a son due in early December, Brown says that “being a mother has always been [her] one dream. That’s why I work so hard. This is the primary dream right here, so I get to live my dream.”
She’ll perform Shower Me—what she calls her imagined baby-shower show—as a series of character monologues in November, right before her due date. “This is the solution to the fact that I’ll be nine-months pregnant when the thesis goes up,” Brown joked.
And her own mother will likely make an appearance, via projection, telling the story of her daughter’s birth. It will serve, Brown says, as a sort of abatement to her own fears about being a mother, proof that everything will work out well.