KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 6, 2000
Okay, so let’s get this straight right off the bat. Despite the misleading title, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” this is not a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Richard. And the African Company is not a visiting acting troupe; in fact, it’s no longer in existence. This play is historical fiction, based on a fascinating true story.
In 1821, the African Company was alive and well and performing in New York City. America’s first black acting troupe was enormously popular, with blacks and whites. The country was still young, and slavery was a palpable presence; the Emancipation Proclamation was still 40 years off. But this spunky little company refused to be silenced…. even when all the political powers of the day were turned against them.
As playwright Carlyle Brown tells it, the African Company’s heinous act was having the audacity to perform Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in the same town and on the same night as the acclaimed Park Theatre, a venerable white establishment with a history nearly as old as the fledgling country. The manager of the Park has the African Company’s venue shut down for trumped-up fire code violations. So Billy Brown, the outspoken, defiant manager of the African Company, rents the ballroom of the hotel right next door to the Park. The whites close the show and send all the actors to jail, forcing them to promise never to do Shakespeare again. But they make a ruckus and they make their voices heard. Though their tale never found its way into history books, it’s certainly well worth telling. For blacks in America, it’s an old, old story.
It was gutsy of the New York playwright to turn the story into a play. It was courageous of North Coast Repertory Theatre to bring the play to Solana Beach. But all the best intentions don’t make for a satisfying evening of theater. The play is clumsy, with all its seams and stale theatrical devices showing. The direction is static and unimaginative, and the production feels amateurish. Not that these aren’t accomplished actors. Most of them are highly respected members of San Diego’s Black Ensemble Theatre, who, ironically, have also been booted out of their theatrical home. Rhys Green, Walter Murray, the luminous Janet Mescus and the lovable “TJ” Johnson, as well as the visiting young ingénue, Monique Gaffney, added to the imperious James Webb and the bumbling Gerard Maxwell — all have been better directed and shown to better advantage.
Everyone has obviously been encouraged to declaim and explicate, rather than creating and inhabiting credible characters. But thankfully, each has a refreshing moment of stillness, when we can actually savor some of Brown’s evocative language, especially the vivid pictures of early New York and the contrived but gut-wrenching tales each black character tells of racist humiliation and degradation. It’s hard not to be touched by the story, but also hard to appreciate it in this disappointing form.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.