JOHNSON CITY (Jan. 23, 2019) – Siblings Ryan, Melody, Gregory, Deondra and Desirae Brown attended Juilliard simultaneously and also launched concert piano careers together as The 5 Browns, prompting national attention through a feature in the New York Times and appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “60 Minutes.” Three CDs went to No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart, and The New York Post called them “the biggest classical music sensation in years,” while People magazine in 2002 dubbed them the “Fab Five.”
But things at home were not so fabulous. The 2018 independent documentary film “The 5 Browns: Digging Though the Darkness” captures the emotional journey of the sibling piano prodigies through the darkness of discovering a shared secret and into the light of determination, healing and bravery as they come to terms with the sexual abuse the three girls suffered from their father as children.
A screening of “Digging Through the Darkness” will be presented at East Tennessee State University on Monday, Feb. 4, in the 2019 “An Evening of Health, Wellness and the Arts.” The free public event will be held in the Millennium Center beginning with a reception at 6 p.m., followed by the film screening and a discussion and question-and-answer session with Deondra and Desirae Brown.
In the film, director Ben Niles “brings us right into the middle of a fraught drama of familial ties frayed to the breaking point, introducing his subjects as they gather to record a new album, which they hope will offer, to themselves, solace and healing,” says a “Hammer to Nail” review. “The siblings grew up with the outward illusion of happiness but the inward truth of parental control and abuse.”
In 2007, the two elder sisters, Desirae and Deondra, confided their dark secrets to each other, only to discover Melody, too, had been assaulted, and the news became public in 2011. Their father is now in prison for the abuses. The documentary shows how the siblings have coped as individuals and as a group, telling the overarching story of healing through music and advocacy, including the efforts of The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, started by the elder sisters.
Each spring at ETSU, “An Evening of Health, Wellness and the Arts” – a collaboration between the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, College of Public Health and the Gold Humanism Society of the Quillen College of Medicine – explores the intersections between wellness and the arts.
“This series has a rich history of exploring the interface of human well-being, on the one hand, and the performing arts, on the other,” says Dr. Randy Wykoff, dean of the College of Public Health. “The story of the Browns is how three very talented sisters faced a horrible trauma, and how that trauma evolved into healing through advocacy. ‘Digging Through the Darkness’ ties together their trauma, their healing and the power of their music.
“It is vitally important that health care providers – indeed, that all of us – understand that some of our patients, our friends, our family members, have deeply complex and sometimes very dark histories. Health care providers have to be willing to seek out and deal with these histories in order to understand them and how they impact the person.”
“Digging Through the Darkness” premiered in April 2018 at the Montclair (New Jersey) Film Festival and soon garnered the attention of HBO Epic, CNN and the BBC. Niles, owner of Plow Productions, LLC, also produced a short film on the piano prodigies, “The 5 Browns: Scenes from Childhood” – as well as “Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037,” “Still We Rise” and “Some Kind of Spark.”
He envisioned a multi-faceted longer documentary on what he calls “the poster children of classical music.” That became “Digging Through the Darkness.”
“I didn’t have any interest in telling a rehash of everything they had said in the press and neither did they,” Niles tells Radiowest. “There’s so much more to them than what happened in their childhood. There’s so much that they are doing. They’re really inspiring people on a bunch of levels.”
Using archival family video, very personal face-to-face interviews, rehearsals, performances and verité footage, the film weaves together the story of musical passion, bravery, perseverance and survival.
“It’s a very difficult but a very powerful story,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin School of the Arts at ETSU. “The 5 Browns have weathered this personal ordeal with much courage and determination, now advocating for the rights of victims of rape and molestation and working to have statute of limitations laws changed for abuse reporting.
“This Evening will be an opportunity to better understand the darkness abuse victims face and the light of advocacy and using one’s experiences to make a difference.”
The Browns’ story, Wykoff says, can help individuals and society better understand how to support people who have suffered trauma.
The 5 Browns performed at ETSU in October 2010 in a Steinway Celebration Concert which both commemorated ETSU’s dedication as an All-Steinway School and capped a “Week of Musical Celebrations” held as part of ETSU’s centennial.
For more information on the pianists, visit www.the5browns.com. To learn more about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or to purchase tickets
for upcoming events, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office
of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.