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How Choreographer Camille A. Brown Channels Her NYC Youth in 'Hell's Kitchen'

By: Raven Snook
Date: May 17, 2024

The Tony nominee on why she hopes this Alicia Keys musical will inspire a love of theatre in the next generation


Right now on Broadway, there's no show more authentically New York than Hell's Kitchen. A longtime labor of love for Grammy-winning R&B star Alicia Keys, the Tony-nominated musical is loosely inspired by her own coming of age in 1990s NYC and centers on Ali (Tony nominee Maleah Joi Moon), a talented and headstrong 17 year old who finds a passion for piano and forbidden love—much to the dismay of her single mom (Tony nominee Shoshana Bean). Featuring Keys' hits as well as a few new songs, it throbs with the vitality of the Big Apple—a diverse city of young dreamers. That's why TDF is thrilled to be partnering with Hell's Kitchen and the New York City Public Schools Arts Office to present a Graduation Gift of free TDF Memberships to all students graduating from NYC public and charter high schools this spring. As the next generation of theatregoers, they will get access to deeply discounted tickets to help them build a lifelong relationship with the performing arts. Seniors who sign up can also enter a drawing to win free tickets to a special performance of Hell's Kitchen on Wednesday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. preceded by a celebration at TDF's TKTS Booth in Times Square.

It's fitting that Hell's Kitchen is our Graduation Gift show since some of the key folks involved are NYC public school alums. Keys went to the Professional Performing Arts School in her home neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen at the same time choreographer Camille A. Brown attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Although the two didn't meet until they started collaborating on Hell's Kitchen, which premiered at The Public Theater last fall and transferred to Broadway in March, they both have vivid memories of growing up in the city.

"Being from New York, it's an amazing feeling to contribute to a show about New York," says Brown, who earned her fourth Tony nomination for her exhilarating choreography for Hell's Kitchen. "I started taking the subway when I was 13 years old because I lived in Queens and went to LaGuardia High School. Walking in the streets, I noticed how diverse New York City was. To bring that diversity to the stage—so many different personalities and energies—and to be able to pour that into the dancers' bodies feels good. I'm representing my hometown in my hometown."

While Brown started her career in dance and earned accolades for her powerful, politically charged pieces with her namesake company, theatre was a longtime goal. "I've always been interested in musical theatre," she says. "My mom introduced me to it when I was a little girl. I was four when she started taking me to Broadway. I remember seeing Black and Blue; Jelly's Last Jam; Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; Damn Yankees; Sarafina!—I could go on and on. I took something away from every show. So I've always wanted to do theatre because it has a special place in my heart because of my mom."

Brown likes to say that she "speaks things into existence." As a Black woman in an industry long dominated by white men, that perseverance was necessary. A little over a decade ago, she started choreographing on Broadway (the Blair Underwood A Streetcar Named Desire, Once on This Island) and beyond (Bella: An American Tall Tale, This Ain't No Disco, Toni Stone). Interestingly, her first three Tony nominations were for her work on plays with movement: Choir Boy and the lauded Broadway revival of for colored girls…, which she directed and choreographed, earning nods for both. Hell's Kitchen is the first time she's being nominated for a musical.

"This is my fifth show for Broadway but the first time that I've had a dance ensemble, so that's really exciting," Brown says. Creating choreography for Keys' "iconic songs" such as "Fallin,'" "Girl on Fire" and "Empire State of Mind" has been a welcome challenge. "They fall into the story in really beautiful and clever ways, and my job is to find movement to help push that story forward," she says. "I'm using social dance to set the time and place. But the dancers also represent the emotions surrounding Ali"—all those complicated feelings of adolescence: love, longing, anger, titillation, pain.

The dancers come through as individuals, yet collectively they conjure the spirit of the city: the teens flirting on the corner, the musicians banging on their buckets, the ladies gossiping on the street, the workers running to their jobs. "New York City is constantly moving and shifting and progressing, and that's what the show is doing, too," Brown explains.

Hell's Kitchen is one of multiple projects Brown has been working on. Earlier this month, her staging of Fire Shut Up in My Bones for The Metropolitan Opera wrapped up its run, and in August, her dance company will travel to Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts to perform the world premiere of I AM, inspired by an episode of the HBO series Lovecraft Country.

Although her schedule is jam-packed, she hopes to be in the Shubert Theatre the evening of June 26 so she can experience Hell's Kitchen with a house full of enthusiastic, newly minted NYC public school graduates.

Asked what she wants those students to take away from the show, she quotes the lyrics of 'Empire State of Mind.' "'In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can't do.' I want them to realize that all dreams are possible, whether they're in the arts or not. I hope they see a reflection of themselves, and also see how important the arts are to the character of Ali and to the world. I love sharing theatre with kids because they show you how they're feeling. They laugh, they respond. It's visceral and it's real. I can only imagine how much fun this particular performance is going to be. To feel that New York energy—there's nothing like being in a room with other New Yorkers."

Know a NYC public or charter school senior who's graduating this spring? Send them this link with info about TDF's Graduation Gift and Hell's Kitchen ticket drawing.

If you would like to support TDF's Graduation Gift, please make a donation to our Education Programs.


Hell's Kitchen is also frequently available at our TKTS Discount Booths.

TDF MEMBERS: Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her on Facebook at @Raven.Snook. Follow TDF on Facebook at @TDFNYC.