Arts Desk

“A Family Affair”: Mourners Line Up for Chuck Brown’s Public Viewing at the Howard Theatre

“Chuck shirts! Chuck shirts!” vendors cried as they worked the line stretching from the Howard Theatre, where crowds had assembled to say goodbye to Chuck Brown today. The scene was part concert, part tourist gathering, part block party; friends greeted each other from across the street, hawkers hollered, local politicians made the necessary appearances.

People in line shouted into their cell phones, trying to find friends. “Everybody making some money,” said one woman in line as a man selling cold water walked past her.
The first man in the queue at the public viewing was Michael Berry, who was standing quietly, holding a portrait of Brown, hat on, against a red background. Berry got to work drawing the picture a few days after Brown died, and he finished it a couple of days ago. He brought it to the public viewing to get exposure, though he’s not sure if he’s going to sell the painting. “Once he passed, I jumped right on it,” Berry said. He said he listened to Brown’s music the whole time he was at work.

Berry’s boss at Providence Hospital let him off of work today, so he made sure to be first in line to see the man whose music he’s loved since he was a teenager. He arrived at 6:15 a.m. “Every time I saw [Brown] he was high-spirited,” Berry said over chants of “Run Joe” from the crowd in line behind him. “For me it’s not a sad occasion, not at all.”

The crowd seemed to agree; most people were smiling and laughing as they caught up with friends. Chants of “Wind me up, Chuck” sprung up from a different part of the line every few minutes.

On T-shirts—sold at several tents and by men walking up and down the line—Brown was smiling, looking out on his city. “Chuck was the type of person who always kept you pleasant and happy,” said Helbert Morrison, one of the vendors. He wanted that image to come across on the shirts. Morrison recalled a Brown concert in Adams Morgan in 1989 or '90. People wondered how he was going to get the largely Hispanic crowd into go-go, Morrison said. But Brown only had to go back to his roots; after all, he learned to play the guitar from members of the group Los Latinos while doing time in Lorton Prison. “Not only did he have them dancing,” Morrison said, “he had them go-going.”

Chuck united the city because ultimately we’re all Washingtonians, Morrison said. Brown crossed racial lines, he said, even if the line outside the Howard—which by 11:15 a.m. extended down T Street, and onto 7th Street and then S Street—included only six white people. Every other mourner outside the theater was black.

Linda Gustus arrived to wait in line just after 9 a.m. Gustus was pleased to see Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry—whom she still calls “Mayor Barry”—at the viewing earlier in the morning, though she noted that she hadn’t seen Mayor Vince Gray. (The mayor was scheduled to arrive later in the day.) “I don’t know if he likes this crowd like Barry,” Gustus said. Councilmembers Jack Evans and Phil Mendelson were outside the theater before the doors opened, and other local politicians were expected to appear.

Gustus said she had to be here to see Brown , especially after meeting him for the first time this winter. When she ran into him at a car wash in Waldorf, Md., he greeted her enthusiastically. “It was just like family,” she said.

At 11 a.m. the doors to the Howard opened to the public. “It was beautiful,” said Latasha Roberts as she exited. “He looks beautiful, just like he always did. He just look like he was sleeping.”

As they left the theatre, fans turned to each other, reconvening, saying goodbye as they headed off to work, making plans to attend Thursday’s memorial ceremony at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Around the corner, the line to see Brown was growing rapidly. It had easily doubled in length in the half-hour since the theater started letting people inside.

“This is gonna be an all-day celebration, and this is gonna last like a family affair all summer,” Morrison said.

The public viewing continues until 10 p.m. tonight.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery. See more here.

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