Echo Brown, a late blooming storyteller who mined her life to create a one-woman show about Black female identity and two autobiographical young adult novels in which she used magical realism to help convey her reality, died on Sept. 16 in Cleveland. She was 39.
Her death, at a hospital, was confirmed by her best friend, Cathy Mao, who said that the cause had not yet been determined. But she said by phone that Ms. Brown had received a diagnosis of lupus around 2015, which eventually caused kidney failure.
A live kidney donor had been cleared for a transplant that was expected to take place early next year.
Ms. Brown, who grew up in poverty in Cleveland and graduated from Dartmouth College, had no professional stage experience when her serio-comic show, “Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters,” made its debut in 2015. It told her autobiographical story, though multiple voices, about dating a white hipster, including wondering what his reaction to her dark skin will be, and the sex, love, depression and childhood trauma she experienced.
“It’s very revealing and I felt very vulnerable doing it,” she told The Oakland Tribune in 2015, adding, “It’s as if you get onstage and share your deepest, darkest secrets. Putting my sexuality out there in front of people can make me feel very exposed.”
The show was successfully staged in theaters in the Bay Area; she also performed it in Chicago, Cleveland, Dublin and Berlin.
Robert Hurwitt, the theater critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, called Ms. Brown “an instantly attractive and engaging performer” who “has us eating out of her hand well before she gets everyone up and dancing to illustrate (with a little help from Beyoncé) why Black women shouldn’t dance with white men until at least after marriage.”
And, the novelist and short story writer Alice Walker said on her blog in 2016, “What I can say is that not since early Whoopi Goldberg and early and late Anna Deavere Smith have I been so moved by a performer’s narrative.”
When “Black Virgins” was mentioned in a profile of Ms. Brown in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2017, Jessica Anderson, an editor at Christy Ottaviano Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, took notice.
“I reached out blindly to see if she would turn her attention to writing for a young adult audience,” Ms. Anderson said in a phone interview. “She wasn’t familiar with young adult or children’s literature. I sent her some books and she had an immediate sense of what her storytelling should be.”
The result was “Black Girl Unlimited” (2020), a novel that Ms. Brown tells through the lens of her young self as a wizard who deals with a fire in her family’s cramped apartment, her first kiss, her brother’s incarceration, her sexual assault and her mother’s overdose.
“Brown’s greatest gift is evoking intimacy,” Karen Valby wrote in her review in The New York Times, “and as she delicately but firmly snatches the reader’s attention, we are allowed to see this girl of multitudes and her neighborhood of contradictions in full and specific detail.”
Ms. Brown’s second book was “The Chosen One: A First-Generation Ivy League Odyssey” (2022), a coming-of-age story that uses supernatural elements like twisting portals on walls to depict her disorienting and stressful experiences at Dartmouth as a Black woman on a predominantly white campus.
Publishers Weekly praised Ms. Brown for the way she ruminated on her “independence, fear of failure, and mental health” with “vigor alongside themes of healing, forgiveness, and the human need to be and feel loved.”
Echo Unique Ladadrian Brown was born on April 10, 1984, in Cleveland. She was raised by her mother, April Brown, and her stepfather, Edward Trueitt, whom she regarded as her father. Her father, Edward Littlejohn, was not in her life. She lived for a while during high school with one of her teachers.
Ms. Brown thought that Dartmouth, with its beauty and prestige, would represent a “promised land” to her and be “the birth of my becoming,” she said in a TEDx talk in 2017.
But early on, she heard voices from a speeding truck shout the N-word at her.
“They weren’t students, they probably weren’t affiliated with Dartmouth in any way, but it was enough to shatter me,” she said. The incident taught her a lesson. “There are no promised lands in this world for marginalized people, those of us who fall outside the category of normal,” she added.
She graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in political science — she was the first college graduate in her family — and was hired as an investigator with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent oversight agency of the New York City Police Department. She left after two years, believing that “we didn’t have the power to do the work that was necessary,” she told the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.
She worked as a legal secretary, and briefly attended the Columbia Journalism School. She became depressed, started to study yoga and meditation, and moved to Oakland in 2011. While there, she was hired as a program manager at Challenge Day, a group that holds workshops at schools aimed at building bonds among teenagers.
Her job included telling students about her life, which helped her find her voice.
“I found that I could drop people into emotion and pull them out with humor,” she said in the Dartmouth magazine article. “That’s where I learned I was a good storyteller and wondered, ‘Where can I go to tell more stories?’”
She began taking classes in solo performing with David Ford at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco. At first, she wrote comic scenes, then created more serious ones.
“It was clear that she was someone who was ready for this, and she had a very easy time getting the words off the pages as a performer,” Mr. Ford said by telephone. “There was something miraculous about her.”
In addition to her mother and stepfather, Ms. Brown is survived by her brother, Edward. Her brother, Demetrius, died in 2020.
Ms. Brown’s latest project was a collaboration with the actor, producer and director Tyler Perry on a novel, “A Jazzman’s Blues.” It is based on a 2022 Netflix film of the same name that Mr. Perry directed from a script that he wrote in 1995, about an ill-fated romance between teenagers (the young man becomes a jazz musician) in rural Georgia that takes place largely in the late 1930s and ’40s. It is to be published early next year.
Ms. Anderson said that the project came about because, as Ms. Brown got sicker, “It was too energy-consuming for her to work on her own material. So she was looking for a more creative partnership and this came about through her agent.”