Bard Talk

The first African-American theater group began long ago, when slavery was still a way of life for most black Americans. During the early 1800s, The African Company, a New York City troupe run by former slaves, began producing serious and critically acclaimed work, including Shakespearean plays, for African-American audiences (many whites also enjoyed the shows, sitting, ironically, in a roped-off section at the back of the theater). It was, in fact, the high quality of the theater's work that got it into trouble: The white companies staging plays nearby became increasingly alarmed, then threatened, by the black group's success. The African Company Presents Richard III, now running at the Ensemble Theatre, is a fascinating look at this brave company's struggle to make art in a hostile world -- a lesson that should be heeded by almost every artist working in America today.

Carlyle Brown's script begins by telling us something about the grand American theaters of the time. Producers vied for audiences by equipping their stages with the newest in pyrotechnics, including enormous oil lamps that could focus to a pinpoint. They built gaudy auditoriums that seated thousands, and they imported famous English actors in their efforts to fill those seats with gaping, culture-hungry Americans. It was a heady time: We had won the revolutionary war; James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving were giving white America its first real literary voice in Europe; and theater was taking hold in New York City. America had found its downy artistic wings, and they were beginning to flap. But in the kitchens and back rooms of New York's "finest," free African-Americans were still struggling to manifest their artistic visions.

Brown shows us this bifurcated world throughout his play, but with one difference: It is the white world that has been marginalized. Set designer Chip Manfre has smartly located the white theaters on the outer edges of the Ensemble stage while allowing The African Company to occupy the entire heart of the playing area. As directed by Ed Muth, the white theatrical producer, Stephen Price (Terry Jones), stands in a corner sliver of the stage to showboat his fancy new theater to a crowd of Anglos.

Meanwhile, Sarah (Linda Hill) moves around backstage of The African Company's theater, trying to teach young Ann (Norelia Reed) how to waltz. Ann is bored with the stuffy, stiff steps, and she breaks away to tell Sarah about what she saw that day on the street: Papa Shakespeare (Sterling Vappie), an illiterate ex-slave from the islands, was pounding his drums for anyone who passed. This music was especially exciting because drumming was illegal for ex-slaves at the time (whites were afraid there might be secret messages hidden in the exotic rhythms).

As Ann tells her story, she moves across the musty backstage space, showing Sarah the effects of Papa Shakespeare's drums on the people who crowded around him. Her hips sway, and her fists clench. Middle-aged Sarah is a little bit afraid of Papa Shakespeare; she tells Ann to pay more attention to Jimmy Hewlett, the young star of The African Company who dresses like an Englishman and adores the language of the original Shakespeare.

But Reed's Ann is cantankerous and smart. She has been rehearsing the role of Lady Anne in Shakespeare's Richard III and is unhappy with Jimmy and her part. She argues with Jimmy (J.D. Hawkins) that it doesn't make sense for Anne to yield to Richard in the famous wooing scene. She wonders what motivates her character, but what really disturbs Ann is that Lady Anne's story seems symbolic of her own. She thinks white men are able to take any woman they please and that African-American women are especially powerless to stop their advances. Ann doesn't feel right about playing the role of a woman who is so easily seduced by an evil white man.

Such analogies enrich our understanding of both the Shakespearean character and the troubles of African-American women who struggled to maintain personal integrity during a time in which they were permitted none. In fact, Brown draws a comparison between the artifice of the theater and the artifice of the system to which African-Americans were forced to ingratiate themselves. All the actors of The African Company have to "make up something" to tell their employers so that they will be allowed out of the house for rehearsals and shows. And they ruefully acknowledge that "colored people act all they time" just to get by in the repressive world they occupy.

Jimmy persuades Ann to go on with the show, even as the theater is threatened from the outside. It turns out that The Park Theater is also preparing to stage Richard III. The Anglo company has even imported an English actor to play the title role, and he's outraged about having to compete with black actors.

Price, the owner of The Park, tries to buy out the run at The African Company, but producer William (Vincent Kyle Victoria) won't be bought. This refusal to kowtow to white demands is the very heart of the play: Its broader theme about the struggle of artists to make their visions real echoes all the way to the 21st century.

The African Company Presents Richard III is more than a lesson for Black History Month; it is a lesson about art and the integrity all artists must maintain if they are to make their work meaningful.

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Lee Williams