Mountains and valleys. Highs and lows. Sheldon Brown ’14 has seen it all over the past year. In April 2018, the Chicago actor was living out his childhood dream. His career on stage and in film was on the rise. But everything came to a standstill one night when, on the walk home from a friend’s birthday party one night, Brown was the unintended victim of a drive-by shooting.
Hospitalized for months, the major injuries he sustained left him with broken bones, a temporary colostomy bag, piles of hospital bills, and the promise of additional surgery. It was enough to break anyone's spirit. But not Brown. Not only did he survive, one year later the 26-year-old has emerged more confident and driven to continue vigorously pursue his career, while helping to correct the systematic disparities that led to the shooting.
“I think what happened to me is a part of a larger discussion about how we are going to invest in our Black and Brown Communities. The person who shot me was a young Black man just like [me]. I was just privileged and lucky enough to land on the opposite side of the tracks,” Brown said recently, while on the set of a feature film shoot in the Moab, Utah Desert.
Brown grew up in a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood, in Dayton, Ohio. He was raised by his grandmother, who was the daughter of a sharecropper and “who believed that onions and Robitussin could cure all illnesses.” Brown said it was his grandmother who instilled in him the importance of strength, perseverance, and persistence—attributes that are very much a part of him today.
For example, last fall, six months after the shooting, Sheldon returned to About Face Theatre In Chicago—where he had been an understudy last April—to audition for a role in “This Bitter Earth.” Still recovering from his injuries, he auditioned while on crutches and with a colostomy bag—and landed a co-starring role. His performance, and what he went through to return to the stage, drew attention from the Chicago Tribune and garnered acclaim from several Chicago theatre critics.
Brown’s ordeal has given him a renewed focus on connecting with those who need him the most—the underserved young people in Chicago. He recently spoke at a public school career seminar in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, an area known for its gang violence; he continues to be a company member of About Face Theatre, which provides LGBTQ youth with a welcoming theatre community; and he has begun to explore becoming a teaching artist with a few theaters in Chicago.
“These communities should have more resources, job opportunities, quality schools, and institutions to provide stability and safety for our young people,” he said. All the while, Brown has sustained the steady drumbeat of a working actor’s career, with two films, Canyonlands And Cicada, set to premiere at Sundance Film Festival and/or South X Southwest next year.
The Best Kind of Leader
In recognition of his perseverance on stage and off, Brown was honored in April with the Emerson College President’s Award for Creative Courage, and he was again recognized at Commencement in May. President Lee Pelton said that Brown “exemplifies hope in a human form,” and that his story “is a story about resolve, about persistence, about hope, about resilience.”
None of these accolades are surprising to those who knew and worked with Brown as an undergraduate. “Sheldon has a grace about him, manifested especially through his concern and compassion for others,” said Art History Professor Cher Knight. “He is the best kind of leader, who makes room for others to excel, too.”
Beyond developing his talent as an actor at Emerson, which he attended on a Bill Gates Scholarship, Brown said he learned to exercise his voice for causes close to his heart.
After taking a course in African American History, Brown said his eyes were opened to “what it means to be a Black man in this country and what it meant to be representative of an overlooked minority in college.”
With new confidence ,the undergrad took action, forming a theatre group, The New Majority, that created work for students of color to “tell their own stories, in their own way,” and enlightened by the Black Lives Matter movement, he joined others on campus to protest the controversial murders of young Black men Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. “Speaking up and speaking out has always been a part of my personality,” said Brown, adding that he believes that his voice, and others like it, is needed now more than ever.
Going forward, knowing that he cheated death, Brown is acutely aware of opportunities to amplify his voice—that of a queer, Black,young man—through his choices on stage and in film. In the process, he intends to diversify both the stories told and the audiences who experience them.
“My choices as an actor grow every day; part of my job is trying to tell stories and trying to tell them truthfully. I respect the weight and power behind that truth,” said Brown. “What I've been through this past year has further solidified that God has a plan for me and he's not through with me yet. There's work I gotta do.”
Originally written by Michelle Gaseau for the Summer 2019 issue of Expression Magazine. (Photography by Derek Palmer)