‘Lion King’ Actor Gives Back to Memphis

By Mel and Pearl Shaw

You’re trying to raise money. You know who could provide funding. You set personal appointments, talk with people in person. You know you have a good project that will make an impact. Yet all you hear is “no.” When do you give up? Russell Joel Brown heard “no” 75 times before he got to “yes.”

Last week we had lunch with Brown at The Little Tea Shop Downtown and learned his story of persistence. You may have seen Brown this month on the Orpheum stage. A singer, dancer and actor, he didn’t give up when auditioning for Disney’s “The Lion King.” Russell auditioned 10 times over 10 years. The “yes” was elusive. He toured the United States, Europe, Mexico and Japan with “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” But each time he auditioned for “The Lion King” the producers couldn’t figure out how to cast him.

A member of the Brown family from Augusta, Ga., Russell is also committed to his family. When it came time to care for his parents, he took a break from touring and became a caretaker. He continued to perform, this time in local productions, fundraisers and cabarets. His unstoppable creativity expressed itself in “From Mozart to Motown,” the one-man show he developed in 2002 in Augusta.

It’s one thing to create a show, it’s another to secure the resources required to produce it. That’s where Brown’s vision and determined optimism made a difference. After getting his 75th “no” he didn’t give up. Number 76 was Peter Knox IV, the owner of D Timms Jazz Cafe. Knox said yes, but not as an investor or underwriter. He wanted his cafe to be the sponsor. And so “D. Timm's and Comcast proudly present From Mozart to Motown – An Evening with Russell Joel Brown” sold out the Imperial Theatre in Augusta, bringing an integrated audience to Brown’s one-man revue. While living in Augusta, Brown received a “yes” from “The Lion King” and has been on the road ever since.

During his time here in Memphis, Brown reached out to Dance Collage, New Day Children’s Theater and Memphis Black Arts Alliance, something he does in every city he visits while touring. He shares videos from the performance, tells his story and encourages youth to focus their talents. He offers guidance in the business side of an actor’s life: preparation, reputation and how to negotiate.

A Morehouse man, Brown was a member of the Morehouse College Glee Club and Morehouse Quartet. He began training as a child at the Augusta Ballet School, following in the footsteps of his sister Karen Brown, who became the principal ballerina for Dance Theatre of Harlem from 1973 to 1995. His life is committed to theater and the next generation.

Contact Brown at THREATS3@aol.com.

Mel and Pearl Shaw, owners of fundraising consultant Saad & Shaw, can be reached at 901-522-8727 or saadandshaw.com.