"Now is the winter of our discontent … " is perhaps one of the most famous of opening lines in any Shakespeare play, this one coming from "Richard III."
A summerly discontent is what I was left with after seeing "The African Company Presents Richard III," the Carlyle Brown play about the first black theater company formed six years before New York abolished slavery.
The disconnect in this American Players Theatre production is that a crucially important moment in the history of American theater is given equal time with a rather pedestrian love story – both stories draped in mysterious journeys leading to unsurprising endings.
In the Greenwich Village of 1821, featuring bricked streets rolled over by horse-drawn carriage, we meet William Brown, a West Indian sailor who left his ship to form a theater company – a company designed to stage the classics, especially the works of William Shakespeare.
The short-lived company – it lasted barely half a decade – was a commercial success, first with black audiences regularly filling its 300-seat auditorium and then adding white audiences that were segregated in the back behind a partition.
The company gave birth to actor James Hewlett (Cedric Mays) and later Ira Aldridge who had a very successful career as a classic actor in England and Europe after the African Company closed.
The successful company developed a competition with Stephen Price’s white theater, boiling over when both companies staged "Richard III," Price’s version featuring famous English actor Junius Brutus Booth and Hewlett starring in the African production. Price first tries to bribe Brown to cancel his performance, but after meeting rejection, he moves on to ordering the local constabulary to bust the show and throw the actors in jail.
The provocative ending of this production, with the five members of the company, is evocative of the pains of racial segregation that flourished at the time and that remain today – in a different form – in much of America.
The importance of this time – the accomplishment of a black theater company – just before the abolition of slavery is a moment to be remembered and honored. The unfortunate part of this play, and perhaps it is the choice of director Derrick Sanders, is that the impact of this historical moment is diminished by the common story of unrequited love featuring Ann Johnson (Jennifer Latimore), who plays Lady Anne in the production of "Richard III."
The ingenue falling head over heels for the handsome and tempestuous leading man is a story as old and common as time. Finally winning his heart after she is spurned, she spurns him and then finally accepts him with the good-hearted intervention of two wise old mutual friends is the obvious path, virtually from the start.
As is always the case, the actors at APT give as good as they got, considering the material with which they have to work. But there is something about the way Carlyle Brown has drawn his characters that seems to lack dimension.
Mays has hold of Hewitt, who also works as a waiter at the hotel where "Richard III" is being staged. His character is full of ego, resentment and certainty in his interpretation of the Bard; it is, for him, the play above all else. Brown (Gavin Lawrence) is a svelte and shrewd businessman who loves the world of theater and equally loves sticking it to the white theater owner next door.
Johnny Lee Davenport, who delivered a stunning Shylock 10 years ago when Milwaukee Shakespeare staged a memorable and innovative "The Merchant of Venice," is saddled with the broadly drawn Papa Shakespeare, a Caribbean expat who was saddled with his nickname due to his difficulty with the King’s English. Davenport pours his heart and soul into this character, who provides almost all of the comedy in the production.
The other three characters in this play are Sarah (Greta Oglesby), who, turbaned and begowned, plays the wise maid and whose experience comes to the rescue of Ann, and the two white men in the play – David Daniel, who plays Price, and Tim Gittings, who plays the Constable.
All three are almost cartoonishly drawn without much depth or development as real people in the midst of a real story. None of this is the fault of the spectacularly talented cast but rather a wanting quality of the script itself.
APT, like other great theaters, is committed to giving actors of color – and other theatrical professionals who have been ignored for too long – more opportunities. Last season, the company staged a powerful production of Athol Fugard’s "The Island," a horrifying production – also directed by Sanders – about the dramatic world of apartheid South Africa.
The contrast between the two productions is a stark one. The first was a staging by wonderfully talented individuals of a powerful and important play written with depth. The second was a staging by wonderfully talented individuals of an important play written with a missing commitment to tell a story fully.
"The African Company Presents Richard III" runs in repertory at APT and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Credits: Director, Derrick Sanders; Voice & Text Coach, Eva Breneman; Scenic Design, Nathan Suber; Costume design, Christine Pascual; Lighting Design, Jesse Klug; Sound Design & Original Music, Joe Cerqua; Stage Manager Carrie Taylor.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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