New York 1821: The African Company Presents Richard III
The African Grove Theatre depicted here appears to be an equivalent of today's community theatres. The actors we meet include a maid, a waiter and a tailor. Program notes inform us that it was the first theatre in America in which black actors performed plays for primarily black audiences, has scheduled a production of Richard III. On the night of its planned premiere, a major New York Shakespearean company is opening its own new production of Richard III for which it has brought to New York noted English Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth. This company's producer, Stephen Price, has determined to close down the African Grove production.
The construction of the play is confusing. At the start, we are told of the arrest and detention in the Eldridge Street jail of the African Grove players (on trumped up disorderly charges). They have been told that they will remain in jail until they agree not to present Richard III. This is the penultimate event of the story. The balance of the play is an account of both the activities of African Grove founder and director Billy Brown and his company as they rehearse their production, and the various efforts of Price to compel, intimidate, and even bribe the determined African Grove company to abandon it.
Most compelling are the five members of the African Company. William Henry Brown, or Billy Brown as he is called here, arrived in the United States as a seaman, is an historic figure who is the resourceful company founder and producer, and was a pioneer black playwright. The determined James Hewlett, the company's Richard III, persevered and, although there is a limited historic record of his career, he is considered to be the first African-American professional actor, and billed himself as "Shakespeare's Proud Representative" in his 1831 benefit farewell performance. These facts are not dramatized here and were gleaned from the notes of Theatre Project dramaturg Zoya Bromberg. However, they are worth knowing, and do represent the personalities and attitudes which enrich the story. Laurence Stepney (Brown) and Michael Flood (Hewlett) bring more dignity and passion than full definition to these roles.
The other company members we meet are likely the creation of author Carlyle Brown. Ann is a young, innocent servant who is in love with Hewlett. Her unlettered innocence makes her unable to relate to the role of sophisticated Lady Anne who would marry the murderer of her father-in-law. This presents Brown with the opportunity to explain to her that acting enables her to escape the confines of her condition, and experience an enriching range of life experiences. Much is made of the fact that the servile position in which society placed such people forced them to be actors in their everyday interactions. Then there is the older Sarah. Sarah's efforts for the Company enable the elderly rich woman whose care is her responsibility to come to see her as a fully dimensional person. Bliss Griffin nicely portrays the emerging maturity of Ann. Daaimah Talley projects the modest ease of a very sensible woman who learns that her efforts are more important than she could have realized. Lorenzo Scott plays "Papa Shakespeare," an older Caribbean man who will always know that he has the touch of the poet even as others regard him and his appended name with a touch of condescension.
Gary Glor is straightforwardly the villain as Price, although the script does allow that he uses racism more to gain advantage rather than out of conviction. This increases the horror of the denial of fair treatment because of racial prejudice. David C. Neal is solid as the police constable who uses his legal authority to do Price's hateful bidding.
(Spoiler) In The African Company's final scene set at the Eldridge Street jail, the Company accepts that it has no real choice other than agree to abandon Richard III. Brown proposes that Blacks should write their own plays depicting African royalty and heroes. He proposes to write a play about King Shotaway who led a Caribbean revolt against the British navy. This germ of an idea for a play which William Brown actually wrote, inspires the company and ends The African Company Presents Richard III on a high note. It is an eminently sensible solution to the Company's plight (after all, it is almost half a century before the end of American slavery). However, the acceptance of the historic reality, with what would today be an unacceptable compromise, will leave some unsatisfied.
The history lesson here is stronger than the sometimes plodding play in front of us, but it is reasonably well dramatized and most definitely, worthwhile to learn about.
It is to be hoped that the new college administration will put its theatre and the time that the Theatre Project of Union County College occupied it to good use. The challenging, high quality work of Theatre Project Artistic Director Mark Spina has brought here has been extraordinary. In recent seasons, they have included, to name a small few, high quality productions of such diverse plays as Omnium Gatherum (Teresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros), Valhalla (Paul Rudnick) and Why Torture is Wrong ... by Christopher Durang, which would not have been otherwise available to local audiences and Union County College students. The close association of the company with the college had burnished the latter's reputation. The Theatre Project is looking at potential new spaces. Stay tuned for further developments.
The African Company Presents Richard III continues performances (Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 3 pm) through May 15, 2011 at the Theatre Project of Union County College, Roy Smith Theatre, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ 07016. Box Office: 800-838-3006; on-line: www.TheTheaterProject.org.
The African Company Presents Richard III by Carlyle Brown; directed by Mark Spina