The African Company Presents Richard III, by Carlyle Brown, Directed by Seret Scott, Oregon Shakespeare Festival through November 5
It is a rare thing for me to be able to watch new production of a modern play. Yes, I have seen a number of Shakespeares and even the odd Moliere multiple times, but very little of the moderns, primarily due to the raw tonnage of works available (Pinter. Pinter is the exception, but despite repeated viewings of Betrayal I'm not a fan). So it is through an odd little looking glass that I can warp back 17 years to 1994 and with it a production of The African Company Presents Richard III at the Milwaukee Rep, and compare it against the current version at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The play itself goes as follows: in the 1820s in New York City, there was a black theater company presenting Shakespeare, in particular the tragedy of Richard III (pronounced in the play as "King Richard Three"). The local mainstream (read, white) theater finds them a threat and a mockery (The African Company seats its white patrons in the BACK of the theater) and closes them down. So the African Company sets up shop right NEXT to the mainstream (read, white) theater at a local hotel, debuting during the opening night when the white theater is doing its OWN Richard, with a noted British actor, Junius Brutus Booth (yeah, the father of THAT Booth). All of this, by the way, is true.
The play brings together a variety of African-Americans - house servants and runaway slaves and free men, who are all involved with the production of Richard III for various reason. And here's the problem with the play itself - those reasons never come together. Billy Brown oversees the production and has no problem with being provocative. James Hewlett is a nervous actor aware of the roles he plays both on the stage and among the white people. Papa Shakespeare has kept his Caribbean accent and remembers old Africa and the old stories. Sarah is the older wise woman who has learned to sail the racial shoals of the new world. Ann is part of the production because she has a thing for James, and while tempted by Billy's sense of justice, nothing comes of it in the play.
And that's the trouble - they are all well-created characters that never really unite. The use of Richard is historically accurate, but the original has no function within the play beyond a point of conflict between the white and black theater companies, and actorly contention between Ann and James (Ann cannot believe any woman would be wooed by Richard over the corpse of her husband, something of lot of other people had have trouble with over the years). There are good bits of writing throughout, but the final message sort of drops out of the sky like a bust of Louis in a Moliere play (yeah, I've seen that happen) to wrap things up. It frustrated me years ago and frustrates me today.
And there are good bits, as I say. Very good bits. Charles Robinson (yes, he was in Night Court) as Papa Shakespeare captivates with tales of the old world and bit of comedy as a conversational go-between for Ann and James. Peter Macon as Billy Brown is a stormcloud, sure of his moves even as they lead the cast into peril. Kevin Kenerly as James Hewlett deals with a character that is vain, nervous, and clueless, yet delivers one of the most powerful moments of the play, where he talks about trying to do Shakespeare before a white audience that expects a minstrel show. It was uncomfortable when I saw it the first time, and even more so in Kenerly's hands, since he's performing a play about African Americans in front of a predominately white audience.
But it is a frustrating play, one that seems to lack a center, and that feeling continues from then to now. The current production was better for me, both because of the gifted actors and the fact that I GET the tragedy of the original Richard better now than I did almost two decades ago. It still feels, after all these years, like it needs a center, or even a choice of the available centers, to pull it all together. As it is, the characters remain apart, and though the final lesson bludgeons forward, I don't believe that this group will remain together, or that the lessons learned have a lasting effect.
And that is a pity, because as I said, the story IS true, and there needs to be that effect.
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