Camille A. Brown is part of an elite coterie: black women who have choreographed for the Broadway stage. Once on This Island won't be the first time she's listed as choreographer—she provided the moves for the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, following in the footsteps of Dianne McIntyre and Hope Clarke, who've also added dancing to Broadway straight plays.
But she's still making history of a kind: Full-scale commercial Broadway musicals choreographed by female African Americans are rarities. Clarke did Caroline, or Change in 2004 and Jelly's Last Jam in 1992, and in 1988, Debbie Allen took on Carrie.
The other black women who've been Broadway choreographers arrived there with hits that moved, as Caroline did, from smaller, nonprofit institutions: Marlies Yearby with Rent and Mabel Robinson with It's So Nice to Be Civilized and the 1976 revival of Porgy and Bess.
As is often the case where the contributions of women, particularly women of color, are concerned, that's not quite the whole story. The choreography for the 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky is officially attributed to George Balanchine. But his uncredited co-choreographer was the legendary Katherine Dunham, who also played the story's sexpot and whose pioneering black dance company was prominently featured in the cast. After that, Dunham amassed nine Broadway credits as a choreographer, most of them for concert appearances by her company and other black entertainers. Her Carib Song sounds like a 1945 precursor to Once on This Island, telling the story of a forbidden West Indies affair.
If Brown fulfills her ambition to become a director/choreographer, she could be the first African-American woman to do it on her own.