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Lost African-American History

The African Company Presents Richard III, a historical drama presented by Texas Southern University's Lyceum and Cultural Arts program, is itself about classic repertory theater and often-slighted aspects of the history of American theater. While black and white cultures were entirely separate and schools and hospitals manifestly unequal, there remained a very strong theater tradition within the black community. While one often hears about vaudeville and the early days of Hollywood, the African-American performers and filmmakers are not as well known.

The Tyler Black Film Collection is a perfect nearby example. One of the collection's stars -- Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering entrepreneur in colored film -- was inspired by a Chicago screening of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which Micheaux watched from his segregated seat in the balcony's colored section. The film's racial politics sparked a near-riot, and Micheaux made up his mind then and there to work in this powerful new medium. He went on to produce and distribute hundreds of films by, for and about his people, frequently advertising with movie posters promoting an "all-colored cast."

The history of the African Company did not begin on such a dramatic note, but the early 19th-century company's endeavor was equally successful. The TSU production touches on the company's beginnings: one William Henry Brown, a retired ship-steward, set up an African-American tea garden behind his house in lower Manhattan. Patrons spontaneously sang a few songs and played a few instruments and eventually established live shows in the tea garden. The little entertainments produced there gained such popularity that Brown was able to move the troupe into a 400-seat auditorium. The company, like any theater company of the day, performed repertory classics such as Shakespeare -- and were as likely to do Richard III as Othello.

A conflict between impresario Brown's African Company and another theater troupe -- a white troupe -- is the crux of the current production. Though the plot concerns dueling Richards, the issues at stake are the right to self-expression and the universality of art.

TSU Lyceum and Cultural Arts program is hosting The Acting Company, which has performed throughout this country, Australia, Europe and the Russian regions.

 
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