by Brenda Sanders, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
How do you get to Lodz, Poland. Well, one route is to be born in Chicago, reared in Clarksdale, Miss. and honed as an actor in Memphis.
Delvyn Brown traveled that path. In November, he will be in Poland’s third largest city starring in a one-man performance about Ira Aldridge, the black thespian who broke barriers as a Shakespearean actor in the 1800s.
Aldridge died in Lodz and is buried there. Although Brown will be performing in new territory, he has portrayed Aldridge on multiple occassions. He is eager to tell Aldridge’s story in Poland and give audiences a good show.
“Both, hands are sweating right now,” Brown said of the experience ahead, putting particular emphasis on the challenge of playing the role while speaking a language other than his native English.
The first opportunity for Brown to take on the persona of Aldridge dates back to 2015, the year the Memphis in May International Festival (MIM) saluted Poland. The performance in Poland is a Bluff City Cultural Center production, with Southwest Tennessee Community College as a sponsor. The collaborators also include a professor at the University of Lodz, with uncanny chance encounters giving rise to international working relationships.
Bluff City Cultural Center Co-Founder Levi Frazier Jr., an assistant professor at Southwest, cast Brown as Aldridge in a play that was a sanctioned MIM event during the Poland salute. Frazier had a long-standing interest in Aldridge. Viewing Brown’s theatrical skills in other local plays and taking note of what he described as Brown’s striking resemblance to Aldridge, Frazier wrote the play “For Our Freedom and Yours” with Brown in mind.
“There was a lady who called me…she found out about the play and she asked how did I get interested in Aldridge. I told her and asked how did she get interested in Aldridge,” Frazier said. “Turns out we had something in common.”
The woman, Barbara Williams, travels a great deal. While at Howard University she came upon Ira Aldridge Theater, taking only a passing interest. Later, a friend, who is Polish, invited Williams to Poland, Frazier said.
“Her friend gave her some books to read about Poland and when she opened one of them up the first thing she came to was Ira Aldridge. She went, ‘Whoa, this is the same guy the building at Howard University is named after.’ That sent her on a rage to do research.”
Williams and her friend, Krystyna Kujawinska Courtney, who teaches at the University of Lodz, evolved to raising money to put a marker honoring Aldridge on a building in Lodz.
Tracing his Aldridge fascination, Frazier said, “I got interested in Aldridge because I went to a (communications and theatre) conference at Howard University and I happened to go by this theatre that said Ira Aldridge Theatre and said, “Wow.” I tucked it away in the back of my mind and then for some reason starting doing research on him about 10 years ago. I found out that he died in Poland and was buried there.”
When Frazier’s sister, who works for International Paper, made a trip to the company’s division in Poland in 2017, Frazier also made the trip, visiting Krakow.
“I told everybody that I met over there about Ira Aldridge,” he said, pausing to share an earlier Aldridge-related episode.
“One time I went to a function in Atlanta where the ambassador to Poland from the United States was there and the ambassador to the United States from Poland was there. I gave each one of them a book on Ira Aldridge.”
Brown’s upcoming performance as Aldridge flows out of Courtney’s move to put together an Ira Aldridge exhibition in Lodz.
“It (the exhibit) opens on Nov. 6, the same day the play opens. She’s getting artifacts from all over the world. …I approached Barbara (Williams) and told her I wanted to talk to Krystyna (Courtney) about the possibility of doing a show there. Barbara was the intermediary and she (Courtney) invited us to do the show.”
For Brown, playing Aldridge in Poland is the next step in an acting career that he began to pursue after a short stint in law enforcement. Early on, he took acting classes at Playhouse on the Square and embraced the process of connecting to the acting community.
His theatrical credits now include “All the Way,” “For Our Freedom and Yours,” “Member of the Wedding.”
“Be serious. Don’t play with it,” Brown said, sharing a personal observation for those who want an acting career. “If this is something that you want to do, you really see yourself doing it, know that there are a lot of other people that do it as well and there are good ways to learn how to do this and there are bad ways to learn how to do this; know the difference.
“Respect the people that do it,” he said. “Respect the time and the quality and the effort that it takes to bring a character to life, to bring that role off the page and into fruition.”