Carolyn M. Brown Interview Part I by Jen Bush
Storme DeLarverie is a pivotal figure in LGBTQ+ history. She was a singer, bouncer, MC and bodyguard who graced the stages of The Apollo and Radio City Music Hall. As a big band singer, she went under the name of Stormy Dale. Her Stormy Dale persona was a male impersonator of Harlem’s famed Jewel Box Revue which was America’s first racially integrated and gay-owned drag show. She is known as the “Rose Parks of the Gay Rights Movement”. In June of 1969, police raided a gay club in Greenwich Village, NYC called The Stonewall Inn. Storme’s scuffle with the police during that raid was said to have ignited the Stonewall uprising. Hers is a fascinating and important story to tell, and her legacy was honored by Carolyn M. Brown.
Staged Reading of Storme, 5/19/23 @ 7pm, 34 Marin Blvd., Jersey City, NJ 07302 (Ticket includes 1 free drink. Post show cocktail hour.)
We had the wonderful opportunity to have an in- depth and insightful discussion with playwright and director Carolyn M. Brown who was incredibly generous with her information and time. In Part I of the interview, we delve into the work itself and how it came about. In Part II we get a more personal glimpse into the passionate and talented artist herself.
About Carolyn M. Brown
Carolyn M. Brown (she/her) is an award-winning journalist, magazine editor, non-fiction author, playwright, producer, and principal of True Colors Project LLC, a social enterprise that produces works by underrepresented artists. Brown’s career spans decades developing content via a portfolio of media platforms—print, digital, broadcast, and live events. Publication credits include Forbes, Inc., Essence, Diversity Woman, The Source, and Black Enterprise. She received the 2012 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Magazine Article, “Black & Gay In Corporate America” (BLACK ENTERPRISE) and is a 2013 GLAAD Media Award Nominee for Outstanding Magazine Article, “Why Gay & Lesbian Couples Pay More” (BLACK ENTERPRISE). She was one of the youngest playwrights to have a staged reading at the Schomburg Center in New York with her play Accessories. She was a Co-Founder of All In Black And White Productions LLC, a theatrical company with Equity Showcases and Off-Off Broadway productions performed from 2006-2011, including her marriage equality play The Engagement which enjoyed a six-week run. Brown alsoco-founded My True Colors Festival: Fighting For Social Justice and Cultural Diversity Through The Arts. She currently serves as vice president of All Out Arts/Fresh Fruit Festival, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting homophobia and prejudice through the arts. Brown is the co-author of CLIMB: Taking Every Step With Conviction, Courage And Calculated Risk To Achieve A Thriving Career And A Successful Life. She has penned two other books: The Millionaire’s Club and Nobody’s Business But Your Own. She also served as an ambassador for the “Many Faces One Dream” LGBT+ economic empowerment tour hosted by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the National Black Justice Coalition, and the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
Being a New Yorker I’m familiar with the Stonewall riots and I’ve even been to The Stonewall Inn. I have never heard the name Storme DeLarverie. Ms. Brown was cognizant of the fact that many others had not heard that name either. That was part of the impetus for Ms. Brown to create this piece. It began as part of an art installation and grew from there. Ms. Brown wanted to crystallize the muddled facts and celebrate a brave heroine who deserves a place at the table of history.
“The idea for STORMÉ the play was sparked by a photo essay that I wrote thanking Stormé for her role in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, which accompanied a mural of Stormé DeLarverie by artist Rachel Wilkins for her 2020 “Shoulders of Giants” exhibit, a 30-piece multi-media body of work paying homage to the advocates, change-makers, and unsung heroes, who helped to bring about social and political progress for LGBTQ+ people.”
“What’s more, June 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 which stands as the watershed moment in LGBTQ+ history for galvanizing the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement. However, historical accounts of the Stonewall Rebellion practiced a tradition of whitewashing and gender washing by erasing key minorities and focusing on white gay men when talking about the Gay Rights Movement. Blacks and Latinos—butch lesbians and trans women—fought back against the police in 1969. Just the same, the contributions of Black LGBTQ+ activists like Bayard Rustin also have been downplayed or overlooked in the Civil Rights Movement. A fact that was underscored by Dave Chappelle when he released his $24 million 2021 Netflix stand-up comedy special, “The Closer,” in which he spends 50 out 72 minutes jabbing at the LGBT+ community and creating an “us vs. them” dynamic between Black and LGBT+ communities as though they’re mutually exclusive groups.”
“I wanted to write a play that explored the life and legacy of Stormé DeLarverie as a trailblazing LGBTQ+ activist, singer, male impersonator, bouncer, and loving partner (she was with the same woman for 25 years until her partner’s death). I particularly wanted to highlight Stormé’s legacy of throwing the first punch, a story that is both disputed and contradicted, but is nevertheless an essential part of LGBT+ resistance that deserves to be elevated and embraced. Additionally, I wanted share rarely depicted details about the Stonewall Rebellion and ensuing gay liberation activism, specifically the contributions of trans women of color.”
“Stormé died the day before Stonewall was made a national monument, and her name wasn’t mentioned once. Her story was diminished. And that’s by design. For too long, the narratives of queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latino, and gender-expansive people have been suppressed, silenced, and erased. That’s why it’s so important to tell stories like Stormé’s that celebrate our history, our identity, and our resilience. STORMÉ is a pivotal moment in speaking my truth. Gay Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin said, “we need in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” I live by that mantra.”
In modern times, history is hyper-chronicled via cell phones and the widespread use of social media. In 1969 technology didn’t exist to capture moments in time accurately. This is one of the difficulties one faces when writing a show about history. Of course, one of the biggest challenges for any playwright is getting their work out there in the world in a fully realized production seen by the masses. It is Ms. Brown’s mission to make that happen.
“One of the challenges in creating this historical piece was knowing how to strike the balance between including too much or too little history in telling Stormé’s story. In general, history is full of mysteries, unanswered questions, and gaps in recorded documentation. That was even more so the case with this piece, because so little has been written about Stormé DeLarverie and the Jewel Box Revue. A primary historical record is the 1987 documentary film short “Stormé: “Lady of The Jewel Box Revue” by Michelle Parkerson.”
“In the wake of worldwide uprising and protest in support of Black Lives Matters, Justice for George Floyd and Police Reform during the summer of 2020, media outlets started to do a better job in telling a truer story of the Stonewall Rebellion. I wanted to show that much like Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, Stormé’s scuffle with the NYPD in 1969 during a raid at the Stonewall Inn was instrumental in the Gay Rights Movement.”
“The biggest challenge in creating this piece is bringing this important production to the stage and sharing this story with even more people beyond readings and workshops as part of the development process. I remain due diligent in my efforts to raise adequate funding to mount a full stage production.”
Ms. Brown recognizes that creating a piece of theatre that reflects history comes with an extra sense of responsibility.
“The Stonewall Rebellion, which was referred to as a riot by homophonic news outlets, was not just one night, it was six days of civil disobedience against police brutality and discriminatory practices. Many of the protestors on the frontline were gender-nonconforming individuals such as Stormé DeLarverie and trans women of color, such as Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera. Again, a fact that is often overlooked. The result is an erasure of the contributions of Black and Brown TGNC people in fighting police violence and unjust policies.”
“Today, immense violence and discrimination perpetuated by state legislators and polarizing political leaders against LGBTQ+ people, particularly against trans people, is escalating as evidenced by the current wave of anti-trans laws, misinformation campaigns, and transphobic and homophobic attacks. There are over 100 anti-LGBTQ+ laws proposed or passed in the United States. These laws include restrictions on transgender people’s ability to access healthcare, participate in school sports, and use public restrooms that align with their gender identity. In addition, there are so-called “religious freedom” laws that allow businesses and individuals to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people under the guise of religious beliefs. The reality is that these laws allow groups to weaponize religious freedom to erode our fundamental civil and legal rights. Legislators are banning content and diminishing First Amendment Free Speech while remaining steadfast against banning assault rifles to amplify the Second Amendment.”
“As historical and LGBTQ+ content came under attack in this country, a fire blazed in me to tell not only Stormé’s story, but also to give historical accounts of Black LGBTQ+ icons like civil rights leader Bayard Rusting, pianist-composer Billy Strayhorn, and genderbending blues singer Gladys Bentley. I am speaking of the growing number of state bills restricting what schools can teach about American history, race, politics, sexual orientation, and gender identity, which increased 250% from 2021 to 2022, reports PEN America. Over 1,800 books with LGBTQ+ content were banned in more than 5,000 public schools in 2002. A number of these books are memoirs, denying people the right to tell their own historical narratives.”
“In writing STORMÉ, it was important for me to acknowledge historical events pertaining to LGBTQ+ people of color and marginalized communities, because I believe in the adage “those who fail to learn from history” or “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” History will be repeating itself under state laws as LGBTQ+ people face a growing threat of being banned from public view. My concern, my fear is that we are heading toward an era of police arrests and brutality of LGBTQ+ people for violating laws that restrict our culture and our history.”
This piece is timely considering all of the government interference that is happening in LGBTQ+ communities all over the country. Progress is being rescinded.
“Anti-drag legislation was part of the impetus behind creating this piece. Honoring the life and legacy of Storme DeLarverie was another. “Tennessee is the first state to ban drag shows from being presented in public spaces. The new law criminalizes drag shows and classifies male and female impersonators as “adult-oriented performance” harmful to minors as defined in Tennessee’s obscenity law. Tennessee is not alone. There are dozens of bills moving through state legislatures across the U.S. designed to ban drag performances.”
“In the past two years, there has been an onslaught of state bills restricting LGBTQ+ rights that could have far-reaching consequences. For me this harkens back to unjust practices that led up to the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 which galvanized the Gay Rights Movement. Police arrests of people (cross-dressers) for not wearing what was considered as three pieces of gender appropriate clothing (3-piece rule) was under the guise of violating the masquerade law, while police raids on bars serving LGBTQ+ patrons, who were deemed as disorderly by their mere presence, was under rule of the New York State Liquor Authority.”
“In part, this is why I wrote my musical play STORMÉ. I wanted to pay homage to the life of Stormé DeLarverie as a big band singer, a Stonewall Rebellion icon, and a male impersonator at the infamous Jewel Box Revue, America’s first racially integrated and gay-owned drag show that toured nationally and internationally. I also wanted to highlight the consequences of forcing certain social groups to live on the fringes rather than in the mainstream due to racism, sexism, genderism, heteronormatism, and classism.”
“Artists play a unique and important role in capturing and responding to what is happening culturally, socially, and politically. In times of social unrest and political turmoil, art has always been a powerful tool for providing a platform for marginalized voices to be heard. STORMÉ is a timely and important reminder of the resilience of LGBTQ+ people of color in the face of growing censorship that seeks to erase us.”