HENRY BOX BROWN explores the triumph of the human spirit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Name: MEHR MANSURI
Name of Edinburgh show: Henry Box Brown
Venue: Assembly Rooms, Music Hall, George Street, EH2 2LR (Venue 20)
Performance time: 14:30
Show length: 90 mins
Ticket price: £7 to £15
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your performing background?
My name is Mehr Mansuri. I am an Iranian born, British schooled, American passport but world citizen. I began a children’s theatre company that centered its mission on children and youth as the voices of positive change. Rooted in theatre with a social-justice imperative at its core, I was interested in making my own connection to a possible common thread – to make sense out of the three very different cultures that was thrust upon me.
Serving a largely African American population of youth, children and families, I could not find relevant and challenging plays that placed them as the central characters, much less heroes of their own history. When I could not find plays and musicals that addressed the personal and cultural forces that shape society, I knew I had to start writing … no matter how inadequate I felt.
Our hope was that young performers and audiences would find power in the theatre’s ability to impact diversity, to develop empathy and compassion for the human condition and to allow us, if ever so briefly, to learn from lives that we have never lived.
I wrote the book of Henry Box Brown the Musical Journey and am the co-composer with Frank Sanchez and in collaboration with Hinton Battle, Eric Dozier, Renee Reid and Jack Lenz and under the direction of Ben Harney, we ‘revived’ some original negro spirituals that would have been authentic to the American South in 1850s in a fusion of songs in the style of R&B, folk, blue grass.
My background as a performer began in Worcester England, where as a boarding school student from Iran, I took refuge in the Shakespeare Lounge (at the Alice Ottley School). I found a common thread in my newly adopted home with my country of origin – where there was a clear connection to a robust love of language and story telling among all levels of society, irrespective of class. I think I wrote Henry Box Brown in a heightened language style that not only captured Henry’s own highly literate command of language (he was a professional orator) but also allowed me to indulge in the heightened language that I came to love so much.
Tell me about your show, what it is all about?
Henry Box Brown the Musical Journey is NOT a re-enactment of slavery. It is about the triumph of the human spirit – that crosses racial boundaries. It is about a celebration of culture and music – that binds humanity together in ways unquantifiable – that only music can do. It resurrects the voices of the past and gives homage to the original artists and the original storytellers …
It’s a musical featuring some of New York’s finest gospel singers and Broadway artists which tells the story of an 1850s Virginia slave who had himself shipped to freedom in a box. Created by Tony Award winner Ben Harney (Broadway’s Dreamgirls) and writer Mehr Mansuri it blends gospel, R’n’B, bluegrass and original a capella spirituals. It’s a truly uplifting show about the human capacity to transcend.
How long have you been working on this show and what is it that makes it relevant to audiences in 2018?
I have been working on the play and music since 2008 and last summer we began workshopping to large audiences who would be invited to stay for a post-show workshop and social action and audience engagement challenge. This is where I am most thrilled to see that we can not only enjoy the story, the music and the rich history of heroes in the darkest chapter of man’s history… but to see the capacity for transcendence among our audiences and their desire and ability to translate their inspiration into pledges of action- especially at a time in the world where the weeds of racism are spreading like wild fire far – and our social skills are relegated to profiles, platforms and pokes and the counterfeit experience of having meaningful conversation and the art of true discourse. We wanted to make sure the production did not exceed 90 minutes and ran at a good pace – that would leave the audience wanting more … and wanting to find out more … and to be more engaged in the questions, rather than preachy answers. The questions that haunt us all. Why would humanity inflict such pain? And how and where does resilience come?
Do you have any top tips for surviving the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – both for performers and visitors to the event?
I have not come up for air yet…much less to advise others. But I know that I feel centered on a mission that goes beyond a walk down memory lane and that grounds me for the long haul… long after we leave the Fringe.
What has been the funniest or most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you on stage?
While performing the role of an Arab terrorist wife, I forgot the Arabic phrases (nowhere near the Farsi language) and just began screaming a favourite Baha’i poem (in Arabic) as though it was a litany of insults. My Arab stage “husband” was not amused!
Who are your biggest inspirations in the industry and why?
Social change writers: Athol Fugard (Master Harold and His Boys), Yazmina Reza (Skylight), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), and totally not in the same category but a guilty pleasure, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity).
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Pray. Sing. Pray. And play with my five year old daughter, who reminds me to keep it real.
What other acts are you looking forward to seeing at Edinburgh Fringe?
Simon Callow one-man show. A favourite actor.
Why do you think people should come and see your show over the thousands of others on at the fringe?
We are living in the most challenging and, arguably, exciting time in human history, when mankind is coming of age and undergoing the convulsions of adolescence. Henry Box Brown converges upon this “stage” of time in society, by striking a chord at the very soul of the question of who we are as humanity, and who we want to be.
It is also a first ever musical that not only tells an untold American story but fuses together a tapestry of the most riveting and rare collection of negro spirituals.