THE AFRICAN COMPANY PRESENTS RICHARD III
by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Phyllis Cicero
Set Design - George Miller
Lighting Design - Michael Pettigrew
Costume Design - Barbara O'Donoghue
Sound Design - David Lanza
Stage Manager - Gloria Abbs
Bob Allen - Stephen Price
May Allen - Sarah
T.K.Bell - Ann Johnson
Rick Spivey - James Hewlett
Major Attaway - Papa Shakespeare
Charles Jimerson - William Henry Brown
Marin Olsen - The Constable-Man
Reviewed Performance 3/27/2011
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I'm always intrigued and interested when a theatre company produces a work based on historical events. It brings on that primal feeling of stories around a fire, where the teller recalls true events to be remembered and passed to each generation as there was no written word to preserve them. Though we have plays and stories aplenty, all bond and ready for the reading, and even greater amounts of resources technically at our fingertips, to see a piece of history presented before an intimate audience is like going all the way back to that fire circle.
Knowing my penchant for the historical play, I was thrilled to see an ad for Jubilee Theatre's upcoming production, The African Company Presents Richard III, when I was there last. From somewhere in my theatre past I knew I was not going to simply see Richard III performed by an African-American company but, instead, a play about the first known black theatre troupe in the U.S., and their attempts to produce the Shakespeare play.
Carlyle Brown premiered his play in the early 1990's and centered it around a brief period of time, 1821 to be exact, and the difficulty for this new group to produce and perform theatrical works in New York City. A former steamship steward, William Henry Brown, opened a tea garden in the back of his house in Lower Manhattan where refreshments were served and artists could recite poetry and prose and play music.
Growing in popularity, William Brown moved his "African Grove" to another house and fashioned the second story into a 300 seat theatre. It was here that future renowned actors like James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge crafted their art, introduced dramas and gradually developed The African Company.
Where Carlyle Brown's play began was during rehearsals for Richard III and the company's "rivalry" with another theatre company, the Park Theatre, and its manager, Stephen Price. This theatre, too, was presenting Richard III, importing a cast of leading players from England, including Junius Brutus Booth (the father of you know who) to play Richard. Suspicious fire code violations, charges of civil discord and the paying of the district constables to stop the performance finally led to the theatre troupe's arrest. All placed in jail and agreeing to never produce Shakespeare again, William Brown told the actors of his own play (thought to be the first by an African-American playwright). It was here, with a moment of hope, the play ended.
The unfortunate truth was that I got all that information from articles online and most of it was merely rehashed in Carlyle Brown's play. Yes, all the above was included, paired with a romantic relationship between Hewlett and actress Ann Johnson that overpowered the history. In an attempt to tell the whole story in a reasonable length of time, the details were skimmed over and the heart of this amazing piece of history was left out. To paraphrase the Bard, this play was not the thing.
I thoroughly comprehended Brown's desire to present the struggles of these people, not only to be artists but to live as free black people in the rough and unforgiving time of the 1820's. The parallels between then and now were obvious and a great reminder that history does indeed repeat itself. The play often brought up the lives led by these actors by evening and housekeepers and waiters by day (sound familiar?) but the underlying racial prejudices and beliefs were barely touched.
One newspaper of the day stated that actor James Hewlett had
"observed his actor masters while as their servant and must have studied their actions and attitudes", imitating their vocal quality and style onstage. As the young theatre's popularity grew, it became a novelty amongst white audiences to patronize the theatre where they held meetings, made jokes at the actors and threw crackers on the stage. Because of those actions, the white members were partitioned in the back and away from the rest of the audience. It was those facts, those details, which were missing and could have been a focal point to this play.
Each of the seven actors in The African Company Presents Richard III played their characters admirably and as best as they could, considering the material given them. No character was written with enough depth to grab on to and make their own. T.K. Bell, May Allen, Rick Spivey and Major Attaway as the actors and Charles Jimerson as the producer showed the passion and the hardships of their endeavors. I especially liked Attaway as Papa Shakespeare, the Caribbean griot peacemaker and wise man of the community. His monologues to the audience were heart-felt and full of hope and wisdom. Bob Allen made a good villain as Price, the vindictive Park Theatre manager and I applauded Martin Olson for having spot on Irish dialect as The Constable-Man.
Brown's play was not entirely without merit. Rick Spivey, as Hewlett,
had opportunities to present two spectrums of his character's life. One was his explanation of why he acts ? "to get to be loved and accepted . . . to feel myself . . . to make myself as if I were clay . . . so that any man can see that I am any man." Later on, in a heart-breaking scene, he described a time when the riotous white audience stopped his performance and demanded, instead, he sing a highly derogatory song called "Possum Up a Gum Tree". With no protest, he immediately slipped into the stereotypical bug-eyed facial expression, sang and danced the slap foot shuck and jive; exactly what the audience wanted and approved. It was those moments, the dreams versus the reality of those people that was the meat of that time in our history and should have been the meat in this play.
George Miller's set was interesting in that, for space sake I suppose, the street scene was on the second level, looking a bit more like a balcony except for the lit street lamp. Baskets, trunks, fabric, bench and odds and ends made up the rehearsal space with two painted framed canvases turned around as set pieces for the play within a play. A small, two person-sized "stage" to the left of the main stage represented both the Park Theatre and The African Grove Theatre's brief staging of Richard III. Huge comedy and tragedy masks and painted curtain lent an old-fashioned flavor.
Costumes by Barbara O'Donoghue were simple and of the period. The women were in ruffled blouses and long skirts, men in non-descript suits, the constable in old-time "copper" black uniform and cap. Papa Shakespeare's maroon velvet patchwork coat was colorful and fun. Michael Pettigrew's lighting design was fairly simple with a few slow fades to spots during monologues and the use of a striped gobo template, representing jail bars. I particularly liked David Lanza's sound effects and music choices. The opening sounds of mob street crowd and carriage horses immediately forecast danger and the African/Caribbean drumming and between the scenes music was infectious.
As so much of the set was under the "street scene", Director Phyllis Cicero had little to work with staging-wise and blocking was reduced to actors moving on a line from stage left to stage right and back again. Only the side "stage" occasionally broke up the one dimension movement.
So, the question ? would I recommend one go see Jubilee Theatre's production? The play did this current day African-American theatre company a disservice. It did not show these actors at their finest nor give justice to this piece of history's injustices. But, for historical purposes, I would want people to see The African Company Presents Richard III if only to be aware of and to witness, per se, this time in our country that was as important as it was for Jubilee Theatre to present.
The African Company Presents Richard III
Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main Street, Fort Worth, TX 76102
Plays through April 23rd
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday & Sunday matinees
Tickets are $15-$25 with $10 for online purchases Thursdays.
Rush tickets at $10 sold 15 minutes before curtain only.
For tickets or information, go to www.jubileetheatre.com or