Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, Emma, and Pyrates
Go back, then, to 1816, when the African Grove opened in New York City. This was a theater operated in the tea garden of William Henry Brown, a free Black emigree from the West Indies, where plays, dance performances and concerts were presented by Black artists for Black audiences. For context, slavery was not fully abolished in New York state until 1827, and the Grove's audience included both free and enslaved Black men and women. One of Brown's partners was a Black actor named James Hewlett, known for his stirring performance in the title role of Shakespeare's Richard III.
The true story of Brown, Hewlett, and their company's stand against a competing production of the same play on the same day at the Park Theatre, then New York's most prestigious playhouse, starring acclaimed English actor Junius Brutus Booth known for his Richard, brought over especially from London, is the subject of Carlyle Brown's play The African Company Presents Richard III. The play, which had its world premiere at Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul in 1988, is being given a fantastic production as part of Great River Shakespeare Festival's current season. It is reason enough to make the two-hour drive (beautiful, along the Mississippi river bluffs) from the Twin Cities to Winona.
An entrepreneur named Stephen Price had acquired the Park Theatre and elevated it above other New York City playhouses by presenting elite actors, such as Booth, in classic fare. The African Grove had already been shut down by authorities, based on spurious charges of uncivil behavior, though nothing more than was typical in most similar establishments serving a white clientele. Brown moved his African Company to another location, and drew not only Black, but also white audiences–who were made to sit behind a partition in the gallery. The fact that Price was losing customers–white customers, his customers–to the African Company infuriated him, and he enlisted the constabulary to find cause to shut them down again. Brown was not to be deterred. In 1821, he leased space next door to the Park Theatre, just as Price was about to present his Richard III, pitting Booth in direct competition with Hewlett.
All of the above is true, and well laid out by playwright Carlyle Brown. He has added invention to the narrative in the form of Anne, an actor set to play Queen Anne to Hewlett's Richard. Anne (the actor, who by day works as a house maid) is in love with Hewlett, and her role, in which she is persuaded to marry her husband's murderer, is unplayable. She cannot separate the drama of the play from the drama of her life. The tensions this creates bring questions of gender equality, as well as the line between life and theater, to the fore.
Another actor is a slightly older woman named Sarah, cast as Queen Elizabeth in the play. Sarah's white employer, Mrs. Van Dam, goes far out of her way to enable Sarah to take part in the African Company, with some oblique suggestion that her interest in Sarah may run more deeply, and raising the question of what can a white ally do in the strife between races. Observing all that occurs at the African Company is a grizzled man called Papa Shakespeare, also a Caribbean emigree, who has within him the spirit of a griot, a West Indian storyteller, who takes what is said here and said there, and creates a story that has more truth than the real events. Papa Shakespeare carries a drum to mark the rhythms that animate his life, as he dispenses perspective and wisdom.
The play concludes with a blend of the historical truth and the playwright's vision of how these characters, in this unheralded episode from our nation's history of racial strife, are able to endure that truth. The play is well written, with beautifully crafted dialog, intriguing characters, and a compelling narrative. Corey Allen directs with a steady hand, in the manner that is a hallmark of the Great River Festival, being sure that the dialog reaches the audience clearly, and the narrative remains consistently clear.
The production is superbly cast. William Sturdivant's Papa Shakespeare takes on the aura of a guiding spirit, drawing the audience to hang on his every word, gesture, and drum beat. Adeyinka Adebola exudes James Hewlett's pride and dignity as a Black man delivering Shakespeare's words, the very core of English culture, even as that dignity puts his humanity at risk. Ashley Bowen gives a poignant performance as Anne, struggling to make sense of how words can be so powerful on stage without holding sway off stage. Raffeal Sears amplifies the courage and brio that enables William Brown to uphold his allegiance to a theater by and for Black Americans, in spite of repeated setbacks and terrible risks.
Stephen Price as played by Great River Shakespeare Festival's artistic director, Doug Scholz-Carlson, is a man who would be steely-eyed in dealing with any competitor, and outraged that this competitor is of a race he clearly views as inferior. We have a sense of him trying not to inhale in their presence, to reduce risk of being infected. Teri Brown gives a fine performance, laced with warmth and humor, as Sarah. Benjamin Boucvalt, a festival veteran, is aptly heavy-handed as the constable who does Price's bidding. Boucvalt also does terrific work as fight choreographer, together with director Allen, making a scene of brutality exquisitely painful to watch, yet completely arresting.
The simple stage set designed by Rodrigo Escalante serves the play quite well, with Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's lighting design going a very long way to add dimension to the physical production. Harri Horsley has designed splendid costumes that embellish every character's persona, in particular the resplendent apparel worn by Stephen Price, accustomed to mixing with high society, and the motley clothes for Papa Shakespeare that seem to have been created organically from the same West Indies atmosphere that created the man. Every character speaks with some manner of accent, and all are well formed, with a shout out to voice and text coach Santiago Sosa.
Under any circumstances, The African Company Presents Richard III is a very good play, and the Great River Shakespeare Festival's powerful production shows it to superb advantage. In light of "We See You White American Theater," which has only begun to scratch the surface of change called for in the theater industry, and the far vaster array of issues and challenges that underscore an essential reckoning over racial justice that was already two centuries in the making when William Brown launched the African Grove, The African Company Presents Richard III takes on even greater importance. It is a play that demonstrates the capacity live theater has to address our deepest wounds and guide us toward opportunities for healing.
Season 19 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through July 31, 2022, with The African Company Presents Richard III in rotation with Twelfth Night and Always...Patsy Cline (a late replacement for The Taming of the Shrew) at the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $49.00; Wednesday performances are half price. Student rush with valid ID: $5:00 at box office, 15 minutes before curtain. Discount passes for all three mainstage shows are available. For schedule of performances and other events, and for tickets, call 507-474-7900 or visit GRSF.org.
Playwright: Carlyle Brown; Director: Corey Allen; Scenic Design: Rodrigo Escalante; Lighting Design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Design: Harri Horsley; Sound Design: Nathaniel Brown; Props Design: Ivy Treccani; Wig and Makeup Design: Kenyana Trambles; Wig Consultant: Mary Capers; Voice and Text Coach: Santiago Sosa; Dramaturg: Andrew Carlson; Fight Choreographer: Benjamin Boucvalt; Intimacy Director: Tonia Sina; Assistant Director: Braxton Rae; Lighting Design Assistant: Jacqueline Malenke; Costume Design Assistant: Caitlyn Louramore; Stage Manager: Tenley Pitonzo; Assistant Stage Manager: Abbi Hess.
Cast: Adeyinka Adebola (Jimmy), Benjamin Boucvalt (Constable), Ashley Bowen (Anne), Teri Brown (Sarah), Doug Scholz-Carlson (Price), Raffeal Sears (Billy), William Sturdivant (Papa Shakespeare).