Theatre Reviews
The Shakesperean actor James Hewlett, portrayed by Cameron Jamarr Davis, in The Black Rep's 'The African Company Presents Richard III,' photo by Philip Hamer.

Playwright Carlyle Brown and The Black Rep take audiences back in time in the eye opening and captivating “The African Company Presents Richard III.” Director Ron Himes and a talented cast spin a tale that personifies and realizes history in visceral, relatable fashion. The show is entertaining and thought provoking, the performances are fluid, realistically grounded and naturally varied.

In the 1800s, well before the Civil War, theaters owned and operated by free Black men provided entertainment to an eager Black-only audience. An audience who appreciated the traditions and history of theater. An audience that wanted to see works by famous authors like William Shakespeare. And the Black companies obliged.

Some times, they succeeded so well that white audiences wanted to see their productions, and that is the point where Brown’s compelling drama begins. The African Company is seeing so much interest and success in their production of “Richard III” that the proprietor, William Henry Brown, known as Billy, has put up a partition to accommodate white ticket buyers.

Unfortunately, the company’s success catches the attention and raises the ire of Mr. Steven Price. The bigoted yet calculatingly polite proprietor of the white Park theater is about to launch his own production of “Richard III,” featuring a “proper, British” actor. Price schemes and hollers, bribes the constable, attempts to bribe Billy and the company, and does everything in his power to shut down the company’s production. Mix in personal tension between the play-within-the-play’s leading actors and the struggles of making theatrical magic with a minimal budget and all the ingredients for a captivating show are brought to life.

Director Ron Himes directs with a clear vision for the script and its layered and nuanced sub-context. The uniformly strong cast features Olajuwon Davis as Billy, Cameron Jamarr Davis as James “Jimmy” Hewlett, Coda Boyce as Annie Johnson, Alex Jay as Sarah, Wali Jamal Abdullah as Papa Shakespeare, all of the African Company, with Eric Dean White as the Park theater proprietor Steven Price and Dustin Petrillo, as the Constable-Man, easily swayed by Price. The cast is connected to the story and committed to their performances, adding to the enjoyment. The moments when Jimmy and Annie’s personal feelings nearly wreck the show or when Sarah delights the rest of the company with new costumes pieces made from salvaged curtains get just the right pause, drawing attention to the persistent impact of racism and casual cruelty.

The transitions from memory to real life to acting and back again are among the most effective and evocative moments in the play. The story so seamlessly integrates them that the shift isn’t immediately apparent, emphasizing context and creating historical relevance. The point of each story sneaks up; revealing itself only after the audience is fully invested in following the plot. The inexperienced Annie argues the Bard’s intent and truth to her character and the seasoned and self-assured Jimmy and we’re suddenly watching questions about a play spill into assessing their own relationship confusion. While refusing every offer, Billy draws the line between Mr. Price’s increasing bribery and the slave auction block. These moments are singularly effective, and rich with meaning and gravitas when woven together.

Effective pacing and thoroughly committed performances give “The African Company Presents Richard III,” continuing through September 25, an extra helping of theatrical realism that hits home. History informs the present. The Black Rep’s resonant production shares stories from history that have been too often and purposefully overlooked to contemporary audiences. Infusing the past with a sense of immediacy ensures the production is a thoroughly captivating, excellently spun tale.


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