When one hears the title, The African Company Presents Richard III, there is perhaps the expectation of an all-black production of the Shakespeare play about the history's most famous deformed prince. Instead, only a few lines of that tragedy are spoken. This show is a historic recreation of an overlooked point in American cultural history about the first African-American theater troupe in the United States in the early 1820s.
The production has been Jeff recommended.
The acting is brilliant and intense. Playwright Carlyle Brown's dialogue is strong and vivid. Director Ron OJ Parson keeps the pace balanced between forceful scenes and episodes of quiet dialogue.
The African Grove Theatre Troupe in Manhattan in 1822 was a home-grown company of free black actors who packed houses. Initially they staged shows for fellow former slaves but were beginning to attract the attention of white theater-goers as well. When they started achieving some critical and financial success, a prestigious white company, the Park Theatre, sought to put them out of business.
In lesser hands, perhaps, the conniving constable, played by Joel Ottenheimer, might be an Irish stereotype as he uses his legal authority to shut down the black troupe as a public nuisance. He is not a leering villain. The character of Stephen Price, an uptown Broadway impresario who sees the amateurs' company as a rival, is solidly portrayed by Jack Hickey. The actor delivers a good deal of exposition but makes it flow and never becomes tedious.
Papa Shakespeare, an older Caribbean man who carries a drum and has a poetic soul, played by Johnny Lee Davenport, makes a strong connection with his audience. Velma Austin is particularly strong as Sarah, the company's matriarch, wardrobe mistress, and actress who plays the Queen in Richard III.
These African-American performers, former slaves now free, hide their talent as they continue to work by day as maids and waiters in New York white society. Their true feelings only come alive with Shakespeare's poetry. Acting enables them to escape the confines of their oppressed condition. The characters imply this inner turmoil exists for all blacks — that they are all actors.
Brandon Greenhouse is dynamic and intense as James Hewlett, the star performer in the production of Richard III. White audiences want him to go into "coon show" dancing and forego the Shakespearean soliloquies. He illustrates a caricature minstrel number, "Opossum Up In A Gum Tree."
Ariel Richardson does well with the leading lady role and is in love with her leading man, though he does not seem to pick up on this. This romantic subplot seems somewhat awkward.
William Henry Brown, the co-founder and producer of The African Company, is portrayed by Matty Robinson. This gently stubborn boss went on to become a pioneer playwright.
The brief scene showing members of the company focusing on every adjective and nuance in their reviews is particularly amusing.
Time and setting shifts are sometimes blurry. Large cards indicating the location on an easel in front of the stage are not visible to the entire audience.
The script at times lacks consistent narrative drive. The plot is not always fully engaging. There is also occasional redundancy. But the fact that this richly detailed work opens up a long-lost era of American history is exciting and significant.
There is a great bit at the start of Act II when the senior actor, Shakespeare, takes two male members of the audience — one black and one white — onstage to illustrate what a griot does. He is a storyteller/historian. Here he softens and interprets the words between the two men, facilitating better communication. I remember first coming in contact with the term "griot" in the 1970s when I read Alex Haley's Roots.
A perfect play for this fine company in this particular community, it's an exciting adventure to discover a lost world, peopled with outstanding talent dramatizing an actual historical episode.
"The African Company Presents Richard III" runs through Sept. 1, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; plus Wednesday, Aug. 29, 8 p.m. $32; $27, seniors; $15, students; free, under 12. Tickets/more: oakparkfestival.com; 708-300-9396. Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park.
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