Difficult though it might be to imagine from this distant perspective of our own relatively enlightened times, America's past can reveal some egregious historical examples of brutal exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and strong, from slavery and repressive racialism to the predatory practices of unregulated capitalism. The history of American theatre has not avoided this taint, as testified to by Carlyle Brown's play, The African Company Presents Richard III, concerning a true incident in 1821 in New York City. A troupe of free African-American actors mounted a Shakespeare production that attained some minor critical and financial success until a larger white company, the Park Theatre, corruptly connived to shut it down to prevent competition with its own production of Richard III.
Brown's play, directed at NCRT by Joe Powers, concentrates on the personalities of and the relationships among five members of the African Company: its manager, Billy Brown (Rhys Greene); its star performer as Richard III, Jimmy Hewlet (Walter Murray); Ann Johnson (Monique Gaffney), who played Lady Anne; Sarah (Janet Mescus), a player and the wardrobe mistress, and Papa Shakespeare (Antonio "T.J." Johnson), another player. There are stereotypical representations of two white characters: Stephen Price, the villainous manager of the Park Theatre (James Webb), and a bumbling, corrupt constable (Gerard Maxwell).
After a proleptic introduction, we watch the African Company actors behave like all actors, fretting about meaningless phrases in their reviews, worrying about the nuances of roles they are already performing quite successfully, fiddling with their costumes, and trying to kindle some backstage romance. They also fill in the background details of their own special circumstances, as all of them have only barely managed to escape outright servitude or the sorts of menial careers mandated by their social class.
Momentum gathers after a relatively slow first act, and the entire tale proves worth watching. The playwright scores a point about the parallels between playing a role onstage and the sort of role playing that subservient blacks must take on in a repressive white society. Antonio Johnson has a delicious scene in which Papa Shakespeare, using the techniques of an African "griot," cleverly mediates a misunderstanding. Gaffney and Mescus are vital and charming. Greene and Murray perform competently within the limits of their own considerable and diverse abilities. But one may wonder why this casting was not reversed—each playing the other role instead—which might have better suited their talents and the parts. Greene actually much resembles the contemporary engraved portrait and descriptions of Hewlet, and his unrelentingly intense and occasionally over-the-top style of acting would have been more a match for the sort of contemporary histrionics than suitable for a Shakespearean villain. And Murray's likeable, faintly abstracted, and gently stubborn natural persona could have worked to greater effect as the more intellectual, idealistic, and visionary Brown, who rose from this unjust defeat to become the first African-American playwright.
Nancy Tedokon designed the production's accurate period costumes, Todd Reischman composed the music and designed the sound, Chris Rynne did the lighting, and Marty Burnett designed the simple and elegantly effective setting, consisting of a gilt proscenium with a very grand crimson drape and a realistic and unadorned backstage area.
"The African Company Presents Richard III," presented by North Coast Repertory Theatre, Lomas Santa Fe Plaza, Solana Beach. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Sept. 30-Nov. 5. $20-22. (858) 481-1055.