Shakespeare, race and the will to perform

In America everything is complicated by race, a fate pressed on us by the history of that "peculiar institution," slavery. But before we face the racial conundrums of circa-1821 New York City as imagined by playwright Carlyle Brown in the play "The African Company Presents Richard III," consider that awkward title. Nobody gets it on first hearing, or if they do they think it's an international troupe of actors performing Shakespeare's "Richard III."

What the play is about is a troupe of African-Americans presenting the drama of Shakespeare's first great villain 190 years ago, when New York had a sizeable population of free blacks 40 years before Emancipation.

The drama, now in revival by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is based on the true story of William Henry Brown (Peter Macon), a pioneering playwright and the founder of the African Company, a group of amateur African-American actors who toil in menial day jobs and hit the boards at night. James Hewlett (Kevin Kenerly), Billy Brown's King Richard, is another historical figure, the man believed to have been the nation's first professional black actor.

Hewlett, Brown and company plan to present the crookback in a rented venue next door to the celebrated (white) Park Theatre, whose impresario, the haughty Stephen Price (Michael Elich) has brought the famed English actor Junius Brutus Booth to town to play — any guesses? — Richard III. And Brown plans to open his play the same night the Price production has its premiere.

The setup makes for some compelling drama in the lively production that opened Saturday night in the OSF's temporary "Bowmer in the Park," a large tent (it will move into the repaired Angus Bowmer Theatre Aug. 3). But the play is like a jigsaw puzzle in which someone has fit together some brilliant pieces, tried to make others fit where they won't go and abandoned the thing before it was finished.

The first act begins with a long soliloquy by Price, who tells us the members of Brown's company have been thrown in jail by his toadies the cops for disturbing the peace and other rubbish, but it's clear the real offence was threatening Price's bottom line. The African Company had already been selling out shows in other venues. Brown even had to cordon off "whites-only" sections for the curious, in part to put them too far from the stage to pelt the actors with garbage.

Thus, most of the play is a flashback, the focus of which is on the attempts by Brown and company to get their play before audiences and the resistance of the antagonist, Price. Director Seret Scott (who directed the memorable "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" in the OSF's old Black Swan years ago) is clearly fascinated with the implausibility of it all. What made these people tread a hard road guaranteed to be hostile, dangerous and demeaning?

The focus is usually on Hewlett, who's played by Kenerly as brilliant, gifted and obsessively dedicated to his craft. But in real life he's arrogant and thick-headed, blind to the obvious fact that Ann (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), who is playing Lady Anne to his Richard, is falling in love with him. In Hewlett's obliviousness we see an echo of Richard III's attitude to women.

That's not the only Shakespearean resonance in the play. Papa Shakespeare (Charles Robinson), an escaped Caribbean slave and a griot, or traditional West African storyteller, functions rather in the manner of Shakespeare's fools (even referring once to Lear's Fool), speaking truth to power and disarming with his wit.

Also like some of the history plays, "The African Company" doesn't have a clear protagonist or a coherent plot. Rather, its protagonist is the group, the company, and its plot is fragmentary and episodic.

Also Shakespearean is the sub-plot featuring the young lovers Hewlett and Ann. Ann can't separate her life from her role and so cannot assume the supine posture of Lady Anne, who must show Richard the same deference she shows her employers. The romantic sub-plot eventually dwindles out amid the play's larger concern, the persistence of the human need for art even amid the vitriol of race relations.

In one riveting scene Kenerly reenacts an incident during which a white audience demanded that he abandon the Bard and dance, and he morphs before our eyes from a golden-throated Shakespearean to a smiling coon show hoofer. He says all the blacks are actors all the time, specializing in the role of "happy negro."

"The African Company" sets up cardboard villains in moustache-twirling Price and Constable-man (Mark Murphey), a mutton-headed Irish cop. The company's actors, too, are one-trick characters with little depth, with the near-exception of Hewlett, who is humanized via a brilliant performance by Kenerly. But even he remains in the end opaque.

It's never clear whether these actors, other than Hewett, are actually good, or merely self-deluding amateurs in a curious footnote to history. But "The African Company" plays better than it reads, thanks to Seret Scott's sure-handed direction and fine acting by the main players. It's an enjoyable evening of theater, but it delivers less than it might have, despite some ringing speeches that testify to the stubborn human hunger for art.

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