Monday, September 12, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || UPDATED: 5:52 p.m.
In a 1991 Chicago Tribune article, drama critic H. Lee Murphy described 25-year-old Maywood resident Leon Brown as a “whirlwind of inexhaustible energy.”
“He`s written plays, produced and directed and starred on stage and is a fine singer and dancer,” Murphy wrote. “Local schoolchildren in Maywood, where he was born and still lives, know him for his inspirational seminars. He`s even published his own book of poems. All of this comes in addition, it should be said, to his regular daytime job as director of parks and recreation for the village of Maywood, where he`s the youngest administrator within memory.”
Murphy’s article highlighted Brown’s appearance in the Black Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Anna Lucasta,” which was staged on the city’s North Side, and his one-man show, staged in Maywood, called “Leon Brown and Friends.”
Brown’s kinetic energy is still felt nearly 25 years after his death in 1992 from a lengthy illness. So much so that some of his good friends have gotten together to put on a Gospel stage-play he wrote called “Trouble at the Gate” in October at Oak Park’s Madison Street Theatre.
“We produced this play about 23 years ago at what was at the time called Jones Commercial High School downtown,’ said Kim Davidson, who was Brown’s best friend.
By profession, Davidson, of Bellwood, is a registered nurse, but her passion is theater. She said her production company, Kimmco Productions, produced “Trouble” at Jones more than 20 years ago and will produce the latest version in Oak Park.
During a recent phone interview, Davidson said Brown would often write content with roles tailored for her.
“Leon and I shared the same dream of becoming professional performing artists,” Davidson wrote in a tribute to Brown after he died. “He wrote 99 [percent] of my material, with most of it written personally for me. Pieces such as ‘The Visitor,’ ‘Farewell to Big D,’ and ‘Sis. Thelma at the Gate.’”
Davidson has a leading role in “Trouble,” a play about a hardworking, churchgoing woman “who gets so caught up in the titles and positions she holds at her local church that she loses sight of the real meaning of serving the Lord.”
This latest production of Brown’s play, one among many he wrote during his lifetime, is bigger and better, his family members and friends say. Brown’s mother, Mamie Gaines, owns the copyrights to the production and gave Davidson permission to produce it again. Brown’s sister and niece also have roles in the production.
“Kim wanted to take it to a different level and to try to get it out there for Leon,” Gaines said during a recent phone interview, adding that this latest encore is only fitting for a man with such outsized and original talent.
Leon Sylvester Brown was born on July 19, 1965 in Chicago to Leon and Mamie Brown Gaines. He started writing in the fourth grade, under the guidance of his teacher Annie Hunt. As a child, Brown would recite James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” to audiences across the country. He wrote his first full-length play, “Lukewarm Saints,” while a student at Proviso East High School.
“Leon wrote about what he knew,” said Davidson, who attended what was then called Progressive Church of God in Christ in Maywood (the church has since moved to Hillside and is called Progressive Life-Giving Word Cathedral).
Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins, who knew Brown, recalled that, along with acting, he was also a community activist who loved young people and was a constant support to numerous local organizations in the village.
“His family was also very active and smart and talented,” Perkins said in a recent interview. “I think his talent ran in the family. He went to school with my daughter, so I knew him well.”
In addition to his job at the village, Brown would regularly stage motivational workshops in District 89 schools, “where he spins yarns and plays dramatic therapy games with children starved for encouragement to try theater,” Murphy wrote in his 1991 article.
More than sources of therapy, Brown’s plays were also teaching moments rich in African American culture. Brown’s 75-minute one-man show, “Leon Brown and Friends,” roughly outlined “the development of black art in America.”
“He moves from African folk tales and slave narrations in the opening scenes on to Negro spirituals and a recitation of poems by Langston Hughes and himself before finishing with snatches of prose from James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni,” Murphy noted. “He performs bits of Alvin Ailey dances and three or four songs along the way.”
In 1991, Gaines said, former Maywood Mayor Joe Freelon declared Oct. 11 “Leon Brown Day.” It was just one of the many accolades Brown earned for both his work and his community engagement. But perhaps the most valuable accolade was one void of bells and whistles — just a moniker among community members.
“Most people who knew Leon called him Mr. Maywood,” said Gaines. “He was all about what was going on here.” VFP
Leon Brown’s Gospel stage-play “Trouble at the Gate” will run at the Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison Street in Oak Park, on Oct. 14 at 7 p.m., Oct. 15 at 7 p.m., and Oct. 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Tickets are $27 and $30 at the door. FOr more information call (844) 587-6825, or visit troubleatthegate.com.