Staging African Kings and Queens in the New World

Based on a true story, playwright Carlyle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard III immerses its audiences in the triumphs and trials of America's first black theater company. It's New York, 1821, and Billy Brown (a passionate Rhys Greene), the African Company's proprietor and a survivor of the Caribbean cane fields, can hardly enjoy his success. His rival—a white uptown-theater owner (played with apt complexity by James Webb)—plans to mount his own production of the Bard's Richard and fears competition from Brown's "sable spectacle," with its overflowing "whites-only" section. The uptown owner elicits the help of a constable who also wants to shut down the African Company.

But, as Brown insists in a powerful speech at the play's climax, African-American cultural integrity is simply "too dear"—paid for at too high a cost—to be shut down or sold out. Given that at the time of the play's setting, huge numbers of blacks are still enslaved in the South and no black person is yet allowed to vote, the free players of the African Company have much to lose—or gain—in their face-off with the white elite.

Brown's play is a powerful, eloquent look at the historical and cultural importance of this nation's first black troupe. Take the presence in that troupe of a griot, or traditional African storyteller. Generously portrayed by theater veteran Antonio "T. J." Johnson, Papa Shakespeare's ever-present drum serves as heartbeat, messenger and keeper of African tradition. It's as if the troupe had taken a quintessentially Anglo art form—Shakespeare's play about an English king—and used it to maintain African traditions in the face of outrageous black misfortune.

Director Joe Powers deftly guides his strong ensemble cast through the drama of the African Company's struggle to survive and the engrossing love story between the company's Ann Johnson (a lively Monique Gaffney) and Jimmy Hewlet (an effective Walter Murray).

It's a strong production of a powerful play. One can only wish it had a less misleading title that didn't suggest it's simply a reenactment of Richard III. It's much more than that; it's a play that shines a light on a long-neglected piece of American cultural history.

The African Company Presents Richard III at the North Coast, Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Solana Beach, (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Nov. 5. $18-$22; student and rush discounts available.

 
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