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Belle with the box braids: A rising actress puts an exciting spin on a classic Disney role

Kacy Meinecke

Twenty-year-old Black actress Ranease Brown will make her debut as an iconic princess in Music Theatre Wichita’s production of "Beauty and the Beast."

For the first time in her life, Ranease Brown gets to play a Disney Princess for [MTW] Music Theater of Wichita's production of "Beauty and the Beast." The 20-year-old Black actress from Connecticut is a junior at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. KMUW's Carla Eckels sat down with Brown and asked her about landing the lead role of Belle.

Interview Highlights

RANEASE BROWN: I went into Chicago, it was in March; the first weekend [of the month], and it was the second day of MTW auditions. And I went in, and I sang "Home," which is from the show. ...As soon as I was done ... our [artistic] director, Brian J. Markcum ... just kinda looked at me and he was like, "Okay, so we want to call you back for Belle." ...I said, "Okay, cool." And he handed me a little packet and it had callback materials. So I sat in the hallway of this 19th-floor studio in Chicago. My friends and I had flown out there, just for MTW auditions, and I went back in the room. I did a few scenes for a different show and for "Beauty of the Beast." And then I sang a "Change In Me," which is the other big song that Belle has in the show, and I remember Brian looking at me and him saying, “It's so nice to watch good people do good work." I will never forget him saying that because in that moment, I was just so excited. I had spent about an hour and a half in the hallway just calling my mom, calling my friends from school, and being like, "Guys, I got a call back for Belle."

CARLA ECKELS:  What did you tell yourself before you auditioned?

I always say to myself, "I'm strong. I'm powerful. I can only do what I can" — which sounds really ironic, but it's really like, "I'm going to put my best foot forward essentially and whatever happens today, I'm proud of you." And then I walk in. I was just so excited because MTW is a dream company for me. It still is.

What do you mean?

As a college student, because I'm a rising junior, we do summer auditions and so we auditioned for a bunch of different theaters. We auditioned for amusement parks; like really anywhere that you can work and get paid to do what you love. ...Music Theater Wichita is a huge company and they do a tour; they go to four different cities over the course of a month and they pick about 25 resident ensemble members. I think they had around like 500 applicants or so this year. So, it was on like the top of my list. It really was the company I wanted to work for. Because I saw the season and I was like, "I love 'Beauty and The Beast,' I love 'Ragtime.'" I was like, "I've never been in 'Cats,' but I'm open to the idea of 'being a cat.'" But it really is a dream theater for me. And so, when Brian reached out to me and I had emailed him back and forth for a few callback things for "Beauty the Beast," I was like, "Oh my goodness, I'm getting closer and closer to the idea of working in Music Theater Wichita." And then when I got the offer I was like, "Wait, I have to live in Kansas?" <laugh> And so I was like, "Oh, we'll see what that's like," but I love it!

Brian emailed me and he was like, "We want you to be Belle." And I was just like, "Wow." It meant so many things for me because it's a dream role, but also as a Black woman, this is what I want to do: play roles that you don't typically see people like me in and get to see the little girl's faces in the audience who are like, "Wow, she looks like me." And so it's just a dream come true for sure. And every day I'm like pinching myself, you know?

Kacy Meinecke

What kind of reaction are you receiving?

Everything positive. I talked about this with my family a little bit and my [10-year-old] sister ... turned to me and she was like, "I'm so proud of you." And she was like, "I'm so excited for you and I cannot wait to see all the pictures and the videos." Just her saying that to me and knowing, at her age, what it was like for me to watch shows and movies and be like, "Wow, I don't really see a lot of characters that look like me" — specifically princesses; and I grew up 40 minutes out of New York City in Connecticut. I would grow up seeing shows on Broadway and there weren't a lot of women of color who were leads, specifically Black women, and with locks ... I have sister locks ... I didn't ever really see that on stage. It's just exciting to me to just get to really, heal my inner child in a sense. Also, I get to be part of that for young women and like young girls that are looking for a princess that looks like them, you know?

In this show I'm wearing wigs and I get to have box braids.

Box Braids? That's interesting! That’s how you are wigged?

Yes ... our wig designer, his name's Joshua Harris. He [is] so dedicated to making sure everyone feels represented and comfortable on stage with their wigs. All of the wig textures will be fitted based on what their ethnicities are. He so dedicated to making sure everyone feels represented and comfortable on stage with their wigs. All of the wig textures will be fitted based on what their ethnicities are. "I was gonna take the braids out and I was gonna have them be like crimpy and have this little cute style," but then he thought to himself, "Why can't you have braids to be pretty?" Then I was like, "That is such a beautiful sentiment." So instead of taking the braids out, he kept them in and curled the braids as they are. So, the Act Two wig is this gorgeous curled wig with this nice updo in the back. And I'll have on a little bow and then, ...for the end, I'll have a crown. So, I'm just, I'm very excited for people to see the wigs 'cause I think that they're so well done. And I love Joshua Harris so much <laugh>.

And then you'll be dancing, right? I'm thinking, "Oh wow. Yes. You're a princess, you're gonna be a princess in this production."

I'm excited. I'm excited to be a princess. I've never played a princess before ... a Disney princess I should say. And, and I love Belle. [She's] one of my favorite Disney princesses ... she and I are very similar.

Tell us a little more about what you bring to the role.

Yes, of course. The character work is one of my favorite parts of musical theater. And with Belle, I noticed that she's a little bit, um, socially awkward and so anytime she thinks about what love means or what it means to build a connection, it's based off of what she's read ... and so when she gets to the castle and she's meeting Lumiere and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts and the [living] Wardrobe and everyone, and she's like, "Well these are connections I've never even heard of." And let alone it's an enchanted castle. And so Belle is just like excited to explore the social aspect of herself that she hasn't really gotten to because she's in a town where everyone's like, "Oh, she's weird. She reads a lot <laugh>." I grew up reading ... I always have a book in hand and I brought about 10 with me to Kansas. I'm so used to that aspect of being absorbed in stories and being so into a fantasy world ... and it becomes her reality. And so I'm really playing with the social anxiety that comes with Belle, but also the sweetness and the confidence that comes with her as well.

What is one of your favorite songs to sing in the production?

It’s probably "No Matter What." It's the song I sing with my [onstage] father, Maurice, who's played by Tim Robu and he is incredible. I mean, we get to sing this song together and it's really just the culmination of how Belle feels about her father in establishing that relationship. It's the second song I sing in the show other than the opening and it's the first one where you're like immersed in who Belle is. And I just love working with Tim because he feels like my dad, my stage dad. It's just a beautiful piece because it kind of sets the foundation for the entire musical because she only really goes on this journey because of her father and it's that one moment that I have with LeFou when he has a scarf on and I'm like, "Where'd you get that scarf?" And I know that I made it for my father and then I get really worried and I'm like, "I have to go find my father and that's when I run into everyone in the castle." So, I really think “No Matter What” is just [a] perfect song in the show.

Kacy Meinecke

What is one piece of advice you wish someone would have told you before you entered this business?

To believe in yourself enough to know that if you are rejected or if someone does not want you for something, it's not a reflection of you. It's just a matter of what they want for that moment. I ... would allow a lot of my auditions to dictate what it meant about my talent or what it meant about my craft, but it wasn't that ... sometimes some things aren't right for you and you move on, but I think stepping into an audition room and being like, "Here's my art; I want to share it with you. And if you like it, great. If you don't, I'm going move on." [It's] that ability to come back from rejection and that ability to not put yourself down.

Who are some of your role models, including actors who have bashed the glass ceiling?

For me? My older sister, named Rajane Katurah, she is 28, so she's eight years older than me. She was one of the first people that I saw doing what I do now and looks like me and let alone the fact that we grew up together. Renee Elise Goldsberry, who was the original Angelica Schuyler in "Hamilton." Renee Elise Goldsberry has such a presence, and she is so kind and humble when she's offstage and when she's on stage — [she plays] these characters with such ferocity. There's Aisha Jackson, who's rather new, but I joke around that [she] just seems like we would be like sisters <laugh>. So, I love like every … oh gosh, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Jenny Mollet ... those are just some of the people that inspire me, but just the Black women that are going into this industry and being as fierce as they are, those are the ones that I really look up to.

You've been described as extremely talented, a great professional, you're passionate about your craft. What makes you so dedicated?

I'm a Christian first of all, and so God is the head of my life, and my faith is what keeps me grounded. I feel that it plays a large role into my, social interactions. It plays a large role into my personal peace, and it also just keeps me on the right path along with the people that are in my support system, my circle.

Kacy Meinecke

You also have a male relative that is a Grammy winner, gospel great Bishop Hezekiah Walker, who recorded such hits as "Every Praise" and "Sold Out."

Oh my gosh, Uncle Hez, yeah. So that is my Uncle <laugh> and it's really funny because people that know of him, they get so excited when I say that. My uncle is truly one of the biggest inspirations in terms of music for me. Every time that I get to see him, he's a very busy man, so I don't get to chat with him often, but when I do he's always so encouraging and he's always so inspiring.

Why should people come out and see Beauty and the Beast?

I think people should come see our production because it is full of love, it's full of light, it's full of passion. It's new and improved.

This is the third time Music Theater Wichita's doing this production. But our production — it's got so many different generations of people who just love what they do. And our cast, gosh our cast is full of some of the kindest, most humble and funniest people I've ever met. And I think that we're really bringing these characters to life in a way that I've never seen before.

We want audiences to love this story as much as we do. It really is a tale as old as time. And I know it's kind of cheesy because that's a line from the show, but I think when Mrs. Potts sings that and I get to dance, with Leo Roberts who is playing the Beast, ...when we get to dance that and I'm listening to this song, I'm like, "Wow, we are telling a story that everyone knows and everyone loves, but they're still coming back to see it." So I definitely think people should come see it because we've got some new things happening, but it's a new spin on an old story and I think that's so beautiful about our production.

Kacy Meinecke

Ranease Brown plays the lead role of Belle, the princess in Music Theater Wichita’s production of "Beauty and the Beast."

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.