Faces of ALBA-VALB: Velina Brown
For the past 15 years, Velina Brown has been singing at Lincoln Brigade reunions, most recently at ALBA’s New York celebration in May. “The vibe in the room is often lush with emotion, a sense of connectedness and passion.”
A director, award-winning actor, and columnist, Velina Brown is a veteran of the American Conservatory Theater and a longtime member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Her television and film credits also include supporting roles in Trauma, Milk (2008), Bee Season (2005), and Playing It Cool (2014). She’s a two-time winner of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critic’s Circle award.
Tell me a bit about your own background and career.
I am primarily a theater artist. My artistic home base for 23 years has been the Tony- and Obie-award winning San Francisco Mime Troupe. For 56 years the troupe has created political satire that addresses the issues of the day either locally, nationally or internationally from the perspective of the working class. We show the non-FOX news perspective of history, culture and current events. I also work with many other theater companies, as well as in film and television.
When’s the first time you heard about the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade?
“In 2000 I was not familiar with the history of the Spanish Civil War. I got a big crash course. I hadn’t learned about any of it in school. There’s so much we’re not taught in school.”
I think it was back in 2000. Bruce Barthol and I were working together at the Mime Troupe. He asked if I was available to be one of the performers for a VALB reunion that was coming up in the Bay Area. Several of us from the troupe were participating: Arthur Holden, Eduardo Robledo, Michael Gene Sullivan. I said yes. At that time I was not familiar with the history of the Spanish Civil War. I got a big crash course. I hadn’t learned about any of it in school. There’s so much we’re not taught in school.
What has it been like to sing these songs at the ALBA events? Is the vibe of the room different than with other shows you’ve done?
ALBA events feel very much like family reunions where most of the people know the stories, know the songs and are related to at least one of the vets in some way and are dedicated to keeping the memory of their bravery alive. The “vibe in the room” is often lush with emotion, a sense of connectedness and passion for continuing to tell the story so that we may all know and remember.
Does this repertoire have any particular challenges for a singer?
I guess for me personally the challenge stems from the fact that the Lincoln Brigade was part of the International Brigades. Therefore, the songs are in different languages. So, in addition to English, we sing in Spanish, of course, and also French and German. I did study French and Spanish some in school but not German. Switching back and forth between the different languages and focusing on keeping the words as crisp and clear as I can is a bit challenging but it’s a worthwhile challenge. The words are important.
Do you feel you connect with the music on a personal level?
“The music is just as potent to me as We Shall Over Come, Lift Every Voice and Sing or Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech.”
I connect with the music firstly because it’s so beautiful. I also connect with it because what is being discussed is just as potent to me as We Shall Over Come, Lift Every Voice and Sing or Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech and many other examples of a few, brave, visionaries who at great personal sacrifice actually live their values and not just talk about them.
What’s your favorite Spanish Civil War-related tune?
Bruce Barthol wrote a beautiful song called Taste of Ashes for a Mime Troupe show called Spain 36. It was written about the era but is not of the era. Audiences love to hear it and I enjoy singing it. Though it is a challenge not to choke up on the opening lyric, “Taste of ashes, wounded hearts. We leave our best in this bloodied earth.” My favorite of the era is ¡Viva la Quince Brigada! It’s actually not easy to pick just one!