Echo Brown performs in her play “Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters,” which premiered in 2015. Brown, whose acclaimed one-woman show and two young-adult novels earned her a growing reputation as a voice of Black women, died Sept. 16. She was 39. Photo courtesy of Alexis Keenan via The Washington Post

Echo Brown, who channeled the agonies of poverty and racism into autobiographical art, writing and performing in an acclaimed one-woman show and penning two young-adult novels that earned her a growing reputation as a voice of Black women, died Sept. 16 at a hospital in Cleveland. She was 39.

Her mother, April Brown, confirmed her death and said the cause has not yet been determined. The author suffered from kidney failure caused by lupus and was awaiting a kidney transplant when she died.

Brown began her life on the east side of Cleveland, growing up amid the desperation that results from poverty, pervasive discrimination, and substance abuse. On the strength of her academics as valedictorian of her high school, she received a scholarship to attend Dartmouth College, a place she said she hoped would be “the birth of my becoming.”

But the idyllic Ivy League green in New Hampshire was exposed as only an illusory escape from her past, she recounted, when a passerby in a pickup truck saw her on the university grounds and shouted the N-word from the window. The person who assailed her had no affiliation with Dartmouth. But “it was enough to shatter me,” Brown said years later in a TED Talk, describing her realization that, as she put it, there would be no “promised land” in America for someone like her.

She eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a class in solo performance led her to create and produce a one-woman show, “Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters,” which premiered at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco in 2015. It later was presented elsewhere in California Chicago, Cleveland, Berlin, and Dublin.

Brown disarmed her audiences with humor, joking about the flannel-wearing “lumbersexual” hipster men of her dating life. Having let down their guard, audiences followed Brown while she inhabited an array of characters – from her anguished mother to the white judge who incarcerates her brother for a drug violation – in an odyssey through the traumas of her life to that point.


“Word of mouth fills the theatre,” author Alice Walker published on her blog. “Not since early Whoopi Goldberg and early and late Anna Deavere Smith have I been so moved by a performer’s narrative. This one-woman show proves once again that there is a black woman gene that refuses to let her stay down, give up, or admit defeat, in any area in which she passionately lives her life.”

Onstage, Brown radiated energy, drawing her crowds into a dance at one point in the show and again to their feet at the end in ovations. Her talkbacks after the show proved as affecting as the performances themselves and drew many viewers who recognized themselves in her story.

“She became an instant role model for me,” said Travia Fitzpatrick, 35, who saw the show twice in San Francisco in 2016 and later undertook a correspondence with Brown. “I think her deeper mission was to inspire Black women and let them know that they could do anything. I believe that, in her short life, she did that.”

“Black Girl Unlimited,” by Echo Brown. Henry Holt & Company

Brown later wrote two young-adult novels, “Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard” (2020) and “The Chosen One: A First-Generation Ivy League Odyssey” (2022), that drew from the depths of her early life as well as on the literary tradition of magical realism.

In the first book, passages between the world of her upbringing and places of greater opportunity are depicted as portals. The protagonist and her mother, among others, are revealed as wizards, their magical powers a representation of what is required of them to survive.

“They have said wizards are unbreakable, but I’m not sure anymore,” Brown wrote. “They call us warriors because we survive it and they call us strong because it doesn’t topple us. They call us magic because we manage to make miracles out of it. ‘Wow! Look at her take it all! She’s so strong!’ But for us, it’s not a victory. It’s a bloodbath. What happens after the bloodbath, when we finally fall?”


In her second novel, Brown picked up where her previous book left off, with her arrival on campus at Dartmouth as the first member of her family to attend college. While she wrote the follow-up volume, kidney failure was steadily eroding her health, Brown said, and she felt compelled to tell her story while she could.

“The Chosen One,” by Echo Brown. Henry Holt & Company

“She was writing from a place of complete and total creative abundance,” said Jessica Anderson, her editor at Christy Ottaviano Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

“She had stories to tell, and she knew it,” Anderson added, recalling her as “a writer who only ever sounded like herself.”

Echo Unique Ladadrian Brown was born in Cleveland on April 10, 1984. She was raised by her mother, a seamstress, and her stepfather, a welder, whom she considered her father. An apartment building where they lived was so neglected, Brown recalled, that the basement was visible through the floorboards. Roaches and mice ran uncontrolled. “Poverty gets into your brain, it gets into your bones,” she once told the San Jose Mercury News. “People ask me how I overcame it, but I’m not sure that you ever do.”

She confessed a sense of guilt that she managed to emerge from the circumstances of her youth, while her two brothers, one of whom died of an overdose and the other of whom was incarcerated, did not. Besides her mother, survivors include her stepfather, Edward Trueitt, of Lorain, Ohio, and a brother.

Brown lived for a time during her senior year of high school with an English teacher who saw her potential. She was accepted at a long list of universities and said she chose to attend Dartmouth based on the contented faces she saw in a college brochure.


Despite her obvious gifts, a high school guidance counselor tried to steer her away from college, telling her that she was better off excelling at a “third- or fourth-tier” school than failing at an Ivy League one. “He didn’t believe in me,” she told a Dartmouth alumni magazine years later, “simply based on where I came from.”

Brown wrote for the Dartmouth student newspaper and studied government, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 2006. After college, she moved to New York City, where she worked for an organization that investigated charges of police misconduct. The experience, she said, was “a brutal introduction to the way that the world really works.”

She later worked as a legal secretary and studied briefly at the graduate journalism school at Columbia University before descending into depression. “All of this trauma I’d been through, which I hadn’t processed or dealt with, came up and it was overwhelming,” she told the alumni publication. “I was either going to take my own life or I was going to figure out how to heal myself.”

Brown decided to move west to California, where she immersed herself in yoga, meditation, and spirituality. She found work at Challenge Day, a nonprofit organization that offers workshops seeking to inspire young people. The experience fueled her interest in storytelling.

She enrolled in a solo performance class with David Ford, a resident director at the Marsh Theater, and began developing the show that became “Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters.” Anderson, her book editor, said she recruited Brown as a young-adult writer in part because she was an “unapologetic and proud Black female creator writing from that lens.” It was a “tremendous service to young people,” Anderson said, “to have direct access to her voice.”

Brown took on recent creative projects, including the novel “A Jazzman’s Blues,” written with actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry and scheduled for release next year.

“I don’t think people realize how important story is in our culture, as well as who’s telling the story,” Brown said. “I’ve had a lot of Black women come up to me and say, ‘Wow, this is the first time I think I’ve seen my real story onstage,’” she continued, recalling reactions to her play. “We can’t downplay the importance of that and how it shapes the minds, hearts, and potentially even the life paths of people coming behind us.”

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