Anyone who has attended plays or musicals in Champaign-Urbana is familiar with the work of Christopher Terrell Brown. Whether battling a storm at sea in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (at Krannert Center) or battling racial inequality in Hairspray (at the Station Theatre), Brown has proven that he is always up for a fight. So it was both thrilling and somehow perfectly logical that Brown would be bringing his talent as an actor and also as a writer and director to the ultimate labor of love.
For the last year, Brown has worked tirelessly on adapting a series of novels to the stage. And, in keeping with Brown’s intensity as a performer and reputation as a risk-taker both on and off the stage, his choice of source material should come as no surprise.
You can keep your teenage wizards; you can have your hobbits and orcs, your vampire lovers. Christopher Terrell Brown is bringing Mondo to a theater near you.
As if you didn’t already know, Mondo: Man of Violence is the ür-title of a three-book action series by Anthony DeStefano. The books tell the story of the man known as Mondo, a one-time master thief who worked for the Mob until they killed his wife and son. After this brutal tragedy, Mondo disappeared. Eventually, he was tracked to a hobo camp where a hobo they thought was Mondo was killed. You know the rest. Mondo, swearing revenge for the murder of his BHF (Best Hobo Friend), took the fight to the Mob. After exacting vengeance (with his trademark samurai sword, naturally) in the uncompromising series opener Mondo (published 1975), Mondo continued to persecute drug dealers and other criminals across two more books: Cocaine Kill and A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die (both published 1977).
I sat down with Brown to discuss the project and its various incarnations. Over the course of several hours (in an undisclosed location chosen by Brown himself), we covered such topics as inspiration, violence, what makes a man a man, the origin and metamorphosis of true spirituality, and hobo camps… among other things. What follows is the most project-specific portion of our chat.
Smile Politely: This book series was published well before you were born, so I’m wondering how you came across it.
Christopher Terrell Brown: When I was nine or ten, I found a copy of A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die in a public bathroom while I was on vacation. I was fascinated, so I kept it, hid it, returned to it night after night. After that, I was always on the lookout for the other books. I hit a lot of garage sales, thrift stores.
SP: Adapting any book into a play is a difficult proposition. Especially with a book so full of juicy plot details as this one. How did you go about deciding what to keep and what to cut?
Brown: After reading the series, it became clear how I need to approach this beast of a trilogy. There is a lot going on, and nobody wants to sit at a theater for seven-and-a-half hours no matter how captivating Mondo’s journey is. What I wanted most was to keep the essentials — such as telling Mondo’s backstory — but also keeping the plot moving forward; then I realized, it’s all essential. I’ve decided to make Mondo a three-part special over the span of three nights so that each night’s performance only lasts about 2.5 hours.
SP: Holy shit! So it’s a Mondo Opus! A Magnum Mondo!
Brown: Precisely. Every night you’ll get the next part of Mondo’s story, preceded by a “last time on Mondo” recap done as an abridged fast-forward of what happened in the previous part.
Brown: I know. I know. I like to think of this as an urban fable dealing with the redemption of a man reminiscent of The Divine Comedy, each segment giving a concise look at the psyche of a man on the fringe of society.
SP: It makes perfect sense that you wanted to play the lead role yourself. I mean, who wouldn’t? What sort of preparation have you undertaken for this part?
Brown: I had to go deep, man. Deep into the Mondo of it all. I really wanted this piece to about the transformation of a man from every day thief to hardened badass; and, to that end, I wanted to work on my own image. I started going to the gym every day while I was working on adapting the books. And not just going to the gym to work out. I’ve been getting into fights with all the strongest looking guys. Eyeballing their women. Laughing at their squat form. Refusing to wipe off the equipment when I’m done. Mondo shit. So far I’ve been kicked out of Cardinal Fitness, both campus gyms, and my information has been given to other facilities in town so I’m not allowed around the premises. This has really proven detrimental to my fitness and mental toughness regimen, but now I’ve just been waiting outside at night, hiding in trees, and in backseats of cars. I really feel like Mondo.
SP: I respect commitment to the craft.
Brown: I know how you do.
SP: Obviously you’re still in the planning stage for a lot of this, but what do you envision for the production, down the road? Where would you like to stage this, locally or beyond?
Brown: I’m thinking Broadway. I mean, what’s the point of thinking small? The Spiderman show would have been great if they had worked out all the technical issues, and so I’m coming at this from the opposite direction, I want every bit of action to be grounded in realism. Every sword fight, car chase, and explosion needs to be contained and packaged so even your local Children’s Theatre could take a stab at it. Pun intended.
SP: What made you pursue this as a stage play, rather than a film project?
Brown: I look good on film, but I look better in person. It’s that simple.
SP: Fair enough. Listen, I don’t want to repeat gossip or second-party information, but is it true that this was — at one point — going to be a musical?
Brown: Oh God, I almost forgot about the musical. [Long pause.] The musical.
SP: Everything okay, Chris?
Brown: Sure, sure. The musical is just… See, there’s only so many times you can try to choreograph one very specific tap-dancing sword fight before you give up, swearing a death vow against it. I’ll let you in on one secret: we will be having filmed, montage-style training sequences projected in the theater, funded in part by the College of Media. It’s the 21st century; we need to be thinking of ways of reinventing the theatre. The stage is simply the best context for this body of work. If you know what I mean.
SP: I think I do.
Brown: I want the people sitting in the audience to be struggling right alongside Mondo so for once we can strip away our social masks and look at this flawed social system we live in. Mondo’s world is not very far off from our own, after all.
SP: I’m sure those who read this article will be keen to donate to the cause, but often a theatre production requires more than just money. What else can people do to get involved?
Brown: In a few weeks we’ll be auditioning for actors with a wide range of specialties: combat experience, kidnapping, fraud, drug production and distribution, etc. Since we’re going for realism, what we’re looking for are real people who may have gone to jail once or twice. Not the worst of the worst, but the “not exactly nice” will do. If any readers would like to donate jewelry, valuables, large amounts of money, that’d also be a great deal of help.
SP: That’s good to know. Is there a Kickstarter link or a website people can go to?
Brown: Not as such. Mostly what we’ve been doing is identifying people who look like they want to help, then we send someone to collect. It helps with the anonymous nature of the charitable donation structure.
SP: Sure. I guess. I did want to ask one more thing, if I may, and that’s about your partner in the project. I know the two of you had a parting of the ways, but when this dream began…
Brown: I don’t wanna talk about that. You were warned about the ground rules for this conversation. You were warned!
[Editor’s note: It was at this point in the interview that Brown abruptly left the table and the building.]
The “partner” to whom I referred, Brown’s one-time collaborator on the project, was mentioned to me by a source who wishes to remain nameless. Apparently, when the project was still envisioned as a musical, someone named Loof Lirpa became Brown’s muse. Lirpa was to be the choreographer of the piece, and Brown is said to have done much of the adapting and editing of the script while in private consultation with Lirpa.
An odd addendum to the tale is that no one else seems ever to have met Lirpa, who was rumored to be an international student at the University of Illinois. A contact within the Department of Dance was unable to locate any record of a Loof Lirpa in that or any other department of the university, and none of the students interviewed claimed to know if Lirpa was even male or female. According to one reliable source, Brown was so upset upon the disintegration of their partnership — the cause of which is also shrouded in mystery — that he would write Lirpa’s name on a sheet of paper and hold it up to a mirror, staring at it for hours.
In any event, this project is assuredly one about which Brown and many others are deeply passionate. I wish him nothing but success, and I hope that this tormented genius will find some peace in having finally brought this epic work of drama to the stage.