Lili-Anne Brown isn’t afraid of high school mean girls– or directing a big, boisterous play about them either.
By Thomas Connors
For most of us, success doesn’t come overnight, but it can appear that way to others when good things seem to happen all at once. Take Chicago’s Lili-Anne Brown. She has been performing and directing for years, making a name for herself locally, but these days, her career trajectory is taking off. On top of her laudable credits as Artistic Director of Bailiwick Chicago. She won Joseph Jefferson Awards for her 2019 staging of Caroline, or Change with Firebrand Theatre and Timeline Theatre Company and her 2018 staging of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at American Blues Theater. Just last year, she helmed two much-lauded productions: The Color Purple at Drury Lane Theatre and the world premiere of Ike Holter’s Lottery Day at Goodman Theatre. Now, she returns to the Goodman to direct the Chicago premiere of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.
“I started my directing career in summer stock, so I work very fast, but stay loose and ready for Plan Z,” says Brown, offering a glimpse of her work ethic. “I came into my own in storefront theaters, so I have my eye on the budget, no matter where I am now. I abhor wasting resources.” As for engaging with performers, she notes that she spent 15 years as a professional actor, adding “I know what actors go through. So my prime directive is simply, ‘how I can help them get out of their own way?’ That’s all they really need me for.”
Brown started out in musical theater and comedy, genres she still holds dear. “I will find the absurdity in even the most serious piece,” she says. “I will bring out the music and rhythm and high theatricality in a straight play. If you want a hyper-real, grimy kitchen sink drama, I am probably not your girl. I would want that kitchen sink to run with blood or glitter.”
School Girls is set in a Ghanaian high school in the 1980s and revolves around that volatile mix of envy, ambition and admiration that rules the lives of young people, especially young women. Looking back at her own years at St. Ignatius College Prep, Brown says, “I may have had some inadvertent mean girl moments early on. I was bullied in elementary school and I was anxious to reinvent myself as cool in high school–but by senior year, I pulled a Jerry Maguire in my bougie social group over some mean girl stuff that was happening. It sucked. I lost my friend group that I’d been with all four years, and I didn’t get to do any of the fun graduation or prom stuff, all because I stood up for someone who was being slandered—who I think still ended up hanging out with these girls anyway. That’s high school!”
As her career continues to pick up speed, Brown exudes the enthusiasm of an artist for whom passion is everything and the future is rich with possibility. “At the end of the day, all this is in service to the why−why this story, why now, why this way?” she says. “I think any ‘you’re in the big leagues now’ nerves are gone. It feels like coming home to return to the Goodman.”
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.