The second act of The Black Rep Season 46 premiere production – Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III – opens with an intense monologue where a character explains how he came to be known as Papa Shakespeare. It was a nickname given to him by his slavers in an attempt to ridicule his perceived lack of fluency in the English language. He has a strong African accent that is sprinkled with a hint of West Indian after spending his formative years on a sugarcane plantation in the Caribbean.
During last Friday’s presentation, actor Wali Jamal Abdullah absolutely enchanted the audience with his story of finding the silver lining in what the oppressors have designed for evil – which is essentially a metaphor for the black experience. During the dramatic climax of the speech, it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Bodies leaned toward the stage to make sure they caught every word. And then, out of nowhere, a sneeze echoed through the Edison Theater.
“Bless you,” Abdullah said, like himself. And then he came right back into Papa Shakespeare. He effortlessly returned to the thick accent, and the rhythm
of the delicate cadence of the speech. He never missed a word as he continued with how he embraced the name and how he – just like Shakespeare did during his day – serves his griot circle. Though seemingly insignificant, Abdullah’s instinctive decision to break down the fourth wall for a patron’s sake speaks volumes about the power and purpose of black theater as a griot to the black community. As an institution, it’s a place where black people can see themselves and their stories on stage from their perspective – and performed with the public’s concern in mind.
The African Company Presents Richard III is a nod to the heritage of black theater in the United States. Inspired by true events, the play chronicles the relentless drive of a producer and his company to bring their take on Shakespeare’s classic The Tragedy of King Richard III to New York over 200 years ago. La Compagnie Africaine understood that artistic expression and representation is essential to liberation – so much so that it was willing to risk its own freedom to present its art.
White producer Stephen Price decides their “Black Richard” is an affront to his directing of “Richard III”. He uses his power and influence to sabotage the efforts of The African Company. Neither that – nor corruption – can calm the iron will of William Henry Brown and his African society.
With cultural racism as a backdrop, Carlyle Brown masterfully weaves the
juxtaposition and irony of American history for the stage. Brown argues that this oppression imposed on blacks is rooted in white insecurity. He even argues that black people of that era are among the greatest comedians of all time, as they were forced to suppress their ingenuity and potential to take on lifelong submissive roles that bore no resemblance to their true selves. . And despite the sacrifices these actors have gone through to ensure their survival, they have come out of character easily while in safe spaces to create a subculture that continues to frame and inform every element of the contributions. cultures of America.
Although The African Company Presents Richard III is a play that appeals to the intellectual theater viewer, Ron Himes’ direction and the performance of his talented actors provide a level of engagement that makes up for the lack of intense dramatic action and conflict. This is especially true with Abdullah and Eric
Dean White in his portrayal of Stephen Price. Abdullah is the soul and driving force of the production, but White sets the tone beautifully with the play’s monologue. The robust and lengthy speech promoting a freedom that he shamelessly contradicts with his antics against the Compagnie Africaine could easily have lost the public’s attention if it were in the hands of a less talented actor.
Olajuwon Davis’ passion as producer William Henry Brown creates a wonderful ebb and flow as he calls Price to task for the sake of his troupe’s artistic independence. The entire cast — which includes Cameron Jamarr Davis, Alex Jay, Coda Boyce, and Dustin Petrillo — makes for a well-rounded package.
Kareem Deanes’ sound design is a highlight among the technical elements of the show. Outside noise feels like an additional character that amplifies the experience of the room – from baroque music playing softly before the show begins to inform the audience of the times, to pre-recorded reactions to the play within the room. And with the exception of his choice for the lead role of Ann Johnson in African Company costumes for Richard III – which seems too contemporary compared to the medieval ensembles of the other actors – Andre Harrington takes bold risks with prints, patterns and colors for the period that pay off. quite nicely.
The Black Rep presentation of The African Company Presents Richard III continues through Sunday, September 25 at the Edison at the University of Washington Theater, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For tickets or additional information, visit www.theblackrep.org or call (314) 534-3807.