By Carlyle Brown. At: Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. Tickets: 708-300-3896 or oakparkfestival.com; $20-$32, free children under 12. Runs through: Sept. 1
A little more than three decades after the founders signed off on the Constitution of the United States, a group of free Blacks in New York created the African Grove Theater Company.
With The African Company Presents Richard III, playwright Carlyle Brown creates a vivid, hard-hitting dramatization of the extraordinary company's passionate efforts to bring Shakespeare to life, and to claim the words of a playwright that for centuries had been the sole purview of WASPs/white Anglo-Saxons.
Working with a gifted ensemble, Director Ron OJ Parson crafts a drama that's potent with sorrow, laughter, thrilling action sequences and poetic language. Like so much of Shakespeare's dialogue, the meter underlying Carlyle's words has the rhythm of heartbeats. Humanity is embedded into the sonic bones of the script, and Parson's cast doesn't skip a beat.
If you're lucky, starting a theater company is a Herculean task. More often, it's a Sisyphean one. For the African Company, it is both. In 1821 New York, the group faces the usual, formidable challenges of creating a theaterfinding funding, the soul of the play, actors who can illuminate that soul and designers who can turn scraps of wood and cloth into the wondrous context of costumes and scenery.
As Carlyle's plot progresses, we see the African company beating overwhelming odds, mastering the text of Richard III while fending off a larger world that wants them to cease existing. Their triumph comes accompanied by backlash and brutality that's difficult to watch. They persist nevertheless, wresting a sublime victory from Shakespeare's violent tragedy. Even when the company has literally been brought to its knees ( with clubs and whips ), their powers of artistry and endurance shine through.
The ensemble is anchored by Johnny Lee Davenport as Papa Shakespeare, a former slave whose powers of percussion seep toward the otherworldly. Davenport makes Papa Shakespeare's drum the equivalent of a talisman or a witch's familiar. The sounds that come from it seem to emanate from somewhere beyond the waking world.
Most of actors play two roles: their parts in Richard III and their off-stage selves. As Ann/Lady Anne, Ariel Richardson is a stunner throughout. Ann's problems with playing Lady Annea woman who agrees to mary the man who butchered her husband and her beloved fathergive a crystalline clarity to a problem confounds many a production of Richard III. Richardson has a "rehearsal" scene Brandon Greenhouse, who plays both Richard III and African company member James Hewlett. Swerving between the text of Shakespeare's tragedy and the emotional complexities of their real lives, the pair deliver a scene of extraordinary impact. Anyone decides to stage Richard III straight up needs to call these two in.
Parson leans in to the sometimes shocking relevance Richard III has today. Mark Lancaster's violence design brings home the heinous barbarity of a system where racist cops are encouraged to thrive and something as innocuous as performing-while-black can turn into a death sentence. There's a scene when an unruly audience boos a monologue from Hamlet an demands instead to hear a minstrel song. It becomes a moment of cringing humiliation and barely contained rageand an emblem of the countless indignities ( or worse ) through countless generations. It also evokes every heinous stereotype from Edwin Forrest and "Sambo," to Birth of a Nation to Tarzan to Gone With the Wind and beyond.
The African Company Presents Richard III is a high-water mark for Oak Park Festival Theatre. Parson's next endeavor is helming Radio Golf at the Court, opening in early September. Both shows are causes for celebration.