Northwestern alumna and theater director Lili-Anne Brown talks performance art and racial justice


Graphic by Emma Ruck

In the Oct. 16 virtual event, theater director Lili-Anne Brown talked about her experience attending Northwestern and her career in Chicago theater.

Russell Leung, Reporter

Director, actor and educator Lili-Anne Brown (Communication ’95) conversed virtually with Northwestern professors and students Friday in the first installment of the Kelsey Pharr, Jr. Speaker Series.

The series, named in honor of a Black NU alumnus who starred in two Waa-Mu shows and later became a successful musical theater actor, was created for the 2020-2021 academic year. It features three artists of color involved in Chicago’s musical theater productions.

Brown discussed her time at NU and her career in theater with Communication Profs. Masi Asare and Roger Ellis, who co-curated the series, before answering student questions. She said she first became interested in theater when she participated in the National High School Institute’s Cherubs program. Theater, Brown said, connected her with a community and a family.

“I felt witnessed and I felt like I was bearing witness, and it felt profound,” she said. “And so I knew that’s what I wanted to feel like for the rest of my life, and I knew I wanted to help create that.”

Ellis, in response, connected Brown’s words to the importance of inclusion in theater and the creation of spaces in which all artists can thrive.

“What I’m really hearing is the identities that you hold help shape the way that you lead, and that is another reason why we need more diversity of who’s leading rooms,” they said.

Brown spoke at length about the challenges she confronted as one of the few Black students in NU’s theater program. During her senior year, she produced the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Brown said, after learning the University had never before staged a Black musical production. She said after the bad experiences she had at NU, she felt she couldn’t “leave it like (she) found it.”

She added later she is skeptical about what Ellis described as a “moment of reckoning in the American theater” and frustrated at the lack of progress since she graduated.

“When I hear and read online things that Northwestern students are saying today, I mean, I’ve cried over it,” Brown said. “When I read something and I’m like, ‘Wait, it’s 2020, and you’re going through something I went through in 1992…’ We’re all behind. American society is behind, theater is behind that, and musical theater is in last place.”

Asare said the series, which she and Ellis began planning in January, received funds from the University to address this lack of progress and support diversity and inclusion efforts in musical theater. The speaker series, while coming after a summer of protests against racial injustice, Asare said, also builds upon the work of early theater performers of color such as Pharr.

“Sometimes I think students forget that we are part of a long story,” Asare said. “We actually are part of a long legacy of artists who have made it possible for me to be here, for other artists of color to perform in musical theater.”

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