Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 2000
The Good Guy plays the Bad Guy. Walter Murray is usually an upright, gentle man — both onstage and off. So maybe he can’t relate quite that directly with the villainous hunchback, Richard III. But he can certainly identify with many other elements of The African Company Presents Richard III (at North Coast Repertory Theatre, through November 5).
The drama, by New York playwright Carlyle Brown, concerns the first black theatrical troupe in the country. Murray, co-founder of the first black theatrical group in the county (Black Ensemble Theatre), surely understands the trials and tribulations of that kind of endeavor. But there are differences, too.
“I can certainly relate,” “There are always different agendas and internal arguments about the everyday running of the theater, and the type of work they produce. But that’s really where the parallel ends.
“In the play,” says the soft-spoken, thoughtful Murray, “which is set in the early 1820s, the black theater is very popular with both black and white audiences. But we’ve had to pull teeth to get blacks into our theater. That’s been very frustrating.
“And I was never considered a black actor until I started this theater. Now I’m pigeonholed as a ‘black actor’ and have to carry that mantle. I’ve been a professional actor for ten years, and I got cast in roles that I was best suited for, without regard to race. If we were in L.A., I think we’d have a wider, more sophisticated audience.”
That’s not to say audiences don’t come. They do; but most of them are white, and they’ve been blown away by powerful Black Ensemble Theatre productions like Groomed, Boesman and Lena, Miss Evers’ Boys and Slave Trade. Now BET has lost its home-base, and that makes audience development even harder.
“I applaud North Coast Rep for doing this piece; there are even fewer blacks in North County. But I think they will turn out, if it’s something worth their while. I think the play will really surprise and shock people with its depth and poignancy, its interracial and intra-racial concerns. And there’s humor, too.”
In the piece, The African Company of New York becomes so popular it’s a threat to white theater companies, especially when they’re both trying to stage the Shakespeare history, Richard III.. Bear in mind we’re talking 40 years before Lincoln freed the slaves.
The black company refuses to back down and havoc ensues, including imprisonment and a ban on producing any more Shakespeare plays. Murray portrays the lead actor in the company, who in the end, uses the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech to rally the crowd during the arrests, and to comment on his people and his times.
Maybe he can use it to inspire San Diego audiences. Niche theaters, like ethnic neighborhoods, are what make a city truly cosmopolitan. Hail to NCRT for taking a risk, and long may the BET flag wave.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.