The first time I ever spoke to actor Delvyn Brown he was wearing a red polo shirt and working the cash register at my neighborhood Family Dollar on Chelsea at Danny Thomas. I was a little starstruck, having seen him deliver several incredible stage performances, including a real powerhouse turn in Katori Hall's Memphis-set drama Hurt Village, though Brown was almost unrecognizable outside the spotlight. Our chance encounter in the checkout line was another reminder that most of Memphis' best, hardest-working actors are volunteers who only go to work in the theater after they've clocked out at the office. But Brown's a committed, award-winning pro who has continued to progress and make opportunities for himself. Now all the work he's put in, doing everything from independent film to children's theater, is starting to show returns. He recently completed a TV pilot and, in November, Brown flies to Łódź, Poland, where, in conjunction with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Brown will star in Memphis playwright Levi Frazier's biographical drama, For Our Freedom and Yours, a play about the renowned 19th-century African-American actor and activist Ira Aldridge, who left America to find fame in Europe. "I love being an actor," Brown says, admitting it's still a tough gig. "I love being able to step in and out of these characters and the journeys they send me on. I enjoy every minute of it, whether I'm playing a good guy, a bad guy, or historical guy. It is liberating. It is therapeutic. It's easier to hit that stage or stand in front of that camera at times than it is to be me sometimes." That's a feeling Aldridge also knew too well.
It's wrong to say that Ira Aldridge was forgotten in America. But only because, in spite of some real success, he was never really known here in the first place. Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello in London and for whom Howard University's campus theater is named, was born a free man in 1807, but even in New York opportunities for black actors were limited. He was only just beginning to make a name for himself as a serious actor when the growing popularity of blackface clowning and minstrel shows made it next to impossible for a skilled Shakespearean of color to find work in pre-Civil War America. So Aldridge left his native land for Liverpool, England and points beyond. There he was admired for notable performances in Othello, Richard III, Merchant of Venice, and other works, both classical and contemporary, including roles typically reserved for white actors. He would use his growing fame across the European continent to help foment Poland's anti-slavery movement. Brown's performance will mark the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death in Poland, where he was visiting on a seventh triumphant tour of the country, and booked into a venue called The Paradise.
Frazier, who teaches theater and communication at Southwest Tennessee Community college, first discovered Aldridge standing outside the theater building at Howard University. The playwright, whose Tribute to Richard Wright was produced in Paris by invitation of the Sorbonne, knew he wanted to write something about the important but little-known figure. Memphis in May's 2014 tribute to Poland inspired Frazier to finally make his idea a reality.
"When I write, I've always got someone's voice in mind," Frazier says. "Maybe it's Samuel L. Jackson. Maybe it's somebody else. For Ira Aldridge, the only person I ever had in mind was this bearded guy [Brown], who looks just like him."
"Levi asked if I had ever done a one-man show," Brown recalls. "I hadn't," he adds, admitting he was a little intimidated by the idea of being alone on stage. "And I'd never heard of this person — this actor who achieved all these great heights doing basically the same things I do now. It's almost a mirror image — making sacrifices, traveling from theater to theater. And now I have this opportunity to go overseas. I feel very connected to Ira Aldridge."
The For Our Freedom and Yours creative team has launched a Gofundme campaign and is currently fund-raising to help defray travel costs. If you'd like to help send a Memphis actor to Poland to play another American actor who did his part to transform the world, they can be found on the web at www.gofundme.com/from-memphis-to-poland.