Yvette Nicole Brown comes home to Cleveland, UA

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley in the NBC show, Community. (Jordin Althaus/NBC)

The NBC comedy Community will have its season finale on May 9, and fans are wondering anxiously if that will also be the last episode ever.

But Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley on the show, is staying hopeful. In fact, she decided not to work on a pilot for another series this spring, since fans might take that as a sign that Community was done.

Brown, a former Clevelander and a University of Akron graduate, chatted Tuesday during a return visit to UA, where she remains close with several folks from her college years. She will be part of a discussion at 6:30 p.m. today in the main Cleveland Public Library about “comedy, tragedy and Cleveland” with writer-producer Dan O’Shannon and writer-comedian Dave Hill.

Brown says it will be a conversation “about what makes Cleveland people scrappy.”

“I’m very excited,” she said. “I love Cleveland, as you know. And it’s a great opportunity to talk about what makes it amazing.” Well aware of the jokes about the region when she began to get national attention, “I always wanted to make sure I talked about Cleveland a lot, and well, so that they knew I was proud to be here. …

“This place centers me in a way that nothing else does. When I come home here, I feel like, OK, I know who I am, I know where I’m from, and that will feed my spirit enough for me to go back to Hollywood and fight for another six or seven months. …

“I met Halle Berry recently,” she said. “I had always hoped to meet her because she’s from Bedford, I’m from East Cleveland-Warrensville. I met her at this wonderful gathering a friend of mine had, and when she found out I was from Ohio, and from Warrensville, her eyes lit up and she and I just started talking about different streets and different cities. … She loves that she’s from Ohio. She gets it. People from Ohio get it. We get what decency is, and kindness.”

And the scrappiness? Brown has been thinking about Northeast Ohio’s famously inconsistent weather — “You have to be prepared for every eventuality every single day of your life, just from a walking-out-the-door level.” Then there are Cleveland sports: “We lose a lot but we never stop believing that this season could be our season. We’re resilient.”

Asked about the prospects for Community, whose history has included recent ratings struggles against both The Big Bang Theory and the American Idol results show, she said, “We’ll find out in two weeks.

“As always, I’ll find out from Twitter,” she said with a laugh. The show’s fiercely faithful fans are heavy Twitter users, and well connected, she said.

“I never know, and this year more than ever I don’t know,” she said. “The people that I’ve talked to in the industry about it said you’ve got a good shot. I’ve said, these numbers are horrible. And they’ve said, well, unfortunately everything on NBC is doing badly right now.”

Brown is optimistic enough not to have sought a pilot for another show this spring. (Actors in current series can participate in pilots for new shows, as long as it’s understood that they will do a new program only if their present show is canceled.)

“Why waste another production company’s money on them filming me only to have to recast me if Community comes back? I can sit out a pilot season. It won’t kill me,” she said. Told that she had probably saved her Community money, the ever-thrifty Brown said, “I still have money from The Big House” — a show she worked on in 2004.

Even more important: She did not want to unsettle fans worrying about Community.

“It is smart to have another job lined up,” she said. “I’m not saying what I did was intelligent, at all. But, on the off chance that it might make someone who loved Community feel weird and nervous — that for me made it not worth it.”

Win or lose, she said, “I’ve had four wonderful years. … We were never all that great in the ratings, and they kept us on the air.”

And it has provided all sorts of opportunities for the producers and cast. Brown smiled at the memory of Lost’s Josh Holloway guest-starring, and enduring tons of questions from the Lost-fixated Community cast.

Even seemingly simple episodes take on big challenges; the opening scene of one recent episode took a day to shoot, Brown said, because characters’ various arrivals at a Christmas party were done in a single take, with each having bits of business.

Another episode this season included both songs and puppets, the latter from designers who have worked with the Jim Henson company.

The cast didn’t get to keep those “very expensive” puppets, Brown said, but “I did keep the name and number of the man who made the puppet. I may call and see if they have a little Shirley pattern laying around. … I have grown up loving Muppets and I have Kermits in my house and I just love everything Jim Henson has ever created, so to have something that connects me to that Henson magic would be awesome.”

Brown even went in on a day off to watch the puppeteers.

“We work 16-hour days,” she said. “When you get a day off, it is Christmas. I went in on a day off, knowing I had to work the next day, just to watch the puppeteers work. And I stayed the entire day. When do you get to have a front-row seat and watch professional puppeteers do their magic? That they’re not known by name and red carpets aren’t thrown in front of them everywhere they go is just shocking to me.”

Shirley, the married mom in a community-college study group, has gotten to show a stronger side as the series has gone along. Recently viewers learned that Shirley is in the running for class valedictorian — in direct competition with the more blatantly grade-conscious Annie (Alison Brie).

Shirley, Brown said, “is the only one who has a well-adjusted relationship. She’s the only one that’s raising a family. She started a business.” When her marriage went south (before recovering), Shirley “went off the rails for a minute. But for the most part she’s got her stuff together. … She really doesn’t fail at anything she does.”

Unveiling Shirley’s academic success was not Brown’s idea but, she said, “I have been dropping hints from the beginning that I think Shirley is smarter than people think, and that’s the way I’ve always played her. When it came time for this thing with Annie, I dropped a couple of little things: ‘I think Shirley would be doing really well in school.’ ‘I don’t know why you would think she would drop the ball in this one area when she excelled in every other.’ And I was very happy that they kind of agreed.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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