All it took for Russell Joel Brown to know he wanted to be a dancer was to see his sister Karen on stage in New York City.
“My sister Karen went to dance at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1973 and, out of all seven children, my parents took me to see her debut performance in New York. Now, why I don’t know. I don’t know how they made that choice, but I was so excited to go,” Brown, on the phone from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said. “It was an amazing experience for a fourth grader because it was a big, big deal, even in New York. Sidney Poitier was in the audience. Jessye Norman was in the audience. Brock Peters the movie star was there, Cicely Tyson… I mean, as a fourth grader, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s the person from the movies! Up close and personal!’ I was like, I want to be in that rarified air kind of world. I came home and told my mother, ‘I have got to do that for a living’ and so I enrolled in ballet immediately.”
Life, however, had other plans for Russell Joel Brown, who will be presented with the Image of Entertainment Award at the Augusta City Classic Hall of Fame Banquet this Friday at the Marriott downtown. Brown will also perform the National Anthem before the Augusta City Classic game on Saturday at Laney Stadium.
It wasn’t for lack of trying that Brown didn’t end up with a dance career. When he told his parents he wanted to be a dancer, they agreed to let him take lessons from Ron and Zanne Colton at what was then called the Augusta Civic Ballet School… on two conditions.
“They said, ‘You can pursue anything you want to if you commit to being the best at it, or at least try to be the best at it, and if you stick with it,” he remembers his parents saying, “‘we’ll support you.’”
So Brown studied dance for more than eight years, spent the summer after his 10th grade year in New York in a program at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the summer after his junior year at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. After that, he asked for feedback from the instructors and wasn’t at all prepared for what they had to say.
“They said, ‘He’s a lovely person. He’s tall, he has great extensions, he has great leaps, but those feet will never make a ballet dancer. There’s no way,’” he said. “‘If you’re serious, you could have your feet broken and reset, but that’s the only way.’”
It could have been a soul-crushing moment for someone who had worked so hard for so long. For Brown, however, a little soul searching revealed another way.
“I love ballet to this day. I could sit and watch it all day long, but, luckily, in talking to my parents and my sister and various people, what I figured out was that my love of ballet was more about expressing myself in ways I could not verbally,” he explained. “It didn’t have to be dance; it could be singing. And luckily I have this beautiful voice, so I switched over to music and acting.”
Just as luckily, Brown happened to be a student at Aquinas High School, where Father Fitzpatrick oversaw a theatre program that included annual spring musicals and fall one-act play competitions. After high school he headed to Morehouse College in Atlanta on a music scholarship, then ended up in New York three years after graduating college. After two weeks of non-stop auditions, Brown landed his first role as the lead in a children’s musical that toured schools in the New York area.
“That, of course, really launched me because, without an equity card, which is a professional actors union card, you can’t go to Broadway auditions,” he explained. “Maybe 5-10 percent of Broadway auditions are open to the public, but for the rest of them, you have to be a part of the union. So once I got my union card I was able to go to every audition every time.”
Brown spent three years working in the children’s musical circuit, followed by work on a dance team for the Royal Caribbean cruise line. After that, he got his first Broadway contract with “Smokey Joe’s Café,” and toured the U.S. and Japan with that show. Other shows he’s toured with have included “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
The one he really wanted, though, was “The Lion King.”
“When it opened, there was nothing like it. And there’s never been anything like it,” he said. “But in addition to that, it being this blockbuster, everybody talking about it — I mean, it was as big as ‘Hamilton’ is now — but aside from that, it was the first time in a very long time where there was a majority African American cast. Not since ‘The Wiz,’ really, were that many black people on stage doing a Broadway musical that was that popular. As soon as I saw it, as soon as I saw a clip from it, it was like, ‘I want to be in that show.’ And it took eight years to get in it.”
His journey to “The Lion King” was a difficult one. He had been auditioning for different parts in “The Lion King” at the same time he was starring in productions like “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Then, Brown returned to Augusta to help his mother care for his sick father. He ended up staying for five months and then, after his father passed away, he stayed even longer.
“I made a commitment to stay with my mom for a year, but then everything started happening for me professionally in Augusta which was a complete surprise to me,” he said. “I started working with the ballet, the Augusta Players, the opera and then I produced my own show in Augusta called ‘From Mozart to Motown.’”
Brown had never produced a show before, so he learned by trial and error. “From Mozart to Motown” sold out five shows at the Imperial Theatre and, after four years, things were going well. Then, after four years of quiet, “The Lion King” called again.
“Well, from 2001-2005, I didn’t hear a peep from them. I mean, nothing, which was very unusual because every couple of months or every couple of weeks they were calling and having me come into audition,” he said. “And then out of the blue in July of 2005, they called and told my agent, ‘We’ve got to see Russell tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘I can’t be there tomorrow. I’m in Georgia.’”
Several days later, Brown made it to New York for the audition.
“They sang me, they danced me, they read me, and an hour and a half later, they offered me the job and told me I needed to be there in nine days,” he laughed. “Craziest thing ever. And that was 11 years ago.”
Yes, that’s right. Brown has been on Broadway and touring with “The Lion King” for 11 years. He is a bass in the singing ensemble and an understudy for the role of Mufasa. Brown estimates that he’s been on stage as Mufasa about 350 times.
Working in the show of his dreams and traveling the world while doing it sounds like a pretty sweet gig, but Brown has taken the opportunity his work has afforded him to develop his other passion: working with children.
Wherever he happens to be, Brown offers his time to local school systems and presents students with a program he developed called Project Inspire.
“I am trying to inspire the kids to go for their goals, strive for excellence and explore creativity so I talk to them about the life lessons I’ve learned in the theatre, but also I talk to them about never accepting anything other than what you really want,” he explained. “I, of course, link it to my trajectory in the theatre, but I explain to them that it doesn’t matter what career you decided on, it’s going to require you striving for excellence and exploring creativity.”
Project Inspire has been so successful that Brown feels like this type of work may be his future once his career in the theatre has run its course.
“It’s part of the way that I think of my life: You were given a lot. Okay, now that you’ve utilized and maximized the things that you were given, you’re supposed to reach back and do the same,” he said. “And, yes, I could do that in New York, and, yes, I could do that as I travel around, and I do, but I want to come back and impact my community and impact the place where I grew up because I know it’s possible there and I know the talent is there and I know that what I bring to the table is something that a lot of people can’t bring. So if I don’t bring it, it won’t be there.”
Brown recently bought a house in Augusta, and he said he’s looking forward to being back in Augusta, both for this weekend, when he’ll receive his award from the board of the Augusta City Classic, and in the years to come.
“I’m gratified that I can come home, but that also while home that people are recognizing what I’m doing out in the world and honoring the relationship that we continue to have at home,” he said. “I was blown away, first of all, that they would honor me. It feels so good that they would honor me and it’s a great organization that does so much. I’m excited, and I’m excited that I can come back home and be part of the festivities.”