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The African Company Presents Richard III
by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 9, 2022

Alex Jay, Coda Boyce, Olajuwon Davis, Cameron Jamarr Davis, Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened their new season with an intriguing period drama based on true events. The African Company Presents Richard III is going to be a history lesson for a lot of viewers, since while its subject is important, it’s not as widely known as it probably should be. At the Black Rep, the production continues the company’s usual tradition of excellence, in acting, staging, and production values. 

As mentioned, this is something of an educational play, in the sense that it tells about a particular set of events that actually happened and people who really existed, although I imagine there has been a degree of dramatic license, like all dramatizations of historical people and events.  The focus here is on a Black-operated theatre company in 1820s New York City, called the African company and founded by William Henry Brown (Olajuwon Davis), who goes by “Billy” to his friends. Billy and his company have been staging a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at their small venue, but they have been drawing relatively large crowds and receiving notices in the newspaper. The show, geared for Black audiences, has been drawing more white patrons lately, as well, and this attention has raised the ire of Steven Price (Eric Dean White), who manages the nearby Park Theatre, which is about to host its own production of Richard III starring noted white English actor Junius Brutus Booth. Price is concerned that the African Company will be drawing attention away from his production, and is determined to shut them down, with the help of the local police constable listed in the program as “The Contable-Man” (Dustin Petrillo). Meanwhile, the African Company is dealing with some internal drama of their own, as leading actor James Hewlett (Cameron Jamarr Davis), known as “Jimmy”, tries to keep the increasingly dissatisfied Ann “Annie” Johnson (Coda Boyce)–who plays Lady Anne–from leaving the show. Also in the company are seamstress/actress Sarah (Alex Jay), who works as a maid for a wealthy white woman who becomes a somewhat surprising unseen ally; and the drum-playing, storytelling Papa Shakespeare (Wali Jamal Abdullah), who acts in the play as well as adding his rhythmic soundtrack to the proceedings. 

This is a fascinating show that shines a light on a particular moment in history during a time when Black people–even in Northern cities like New York–are treated with suspicion and hostility even without institutionalized slavery. There are still expectations, and lines they are not supposed to cross, and the African Company and their members risked a lot–their lives, their jobs, and more–in challenging these boundaries. We also get to see moments of their Richard III rehearsals and performance, which provides a look into the making of theatre in the 19th Century. It’s got humor, drama, suspense, and a real sense of the historic, as well as shining a light on the sheer pervasiveness of systemic oppression.

There’s a great cast here, with excellent performances all around, from Olajuwon Davis’s ambitious, earnest Billy to Cameron Jamarr Davis’s charismatic, determined Jimmy; to Boyce’s conflicted Annie, who has great scenes with Jimmy and with the also excellent Jay as Sarah. Abdullah is full of engaging presence in a scene-stealing performance as Papa Shakespeare, and his drumming skills are impressive. There are also memorable villainous turns from White as the scheming Price and Petrillo as the somewhat sycophantic Contable-Man. There’s vibrant ensemble chemistry, especially among the members of the African Company, and the action is well-paced and compelling. 

Technically, the production has ably transported the stage at the Edison Theatre into 1820s New York, with an authentically detailed set by Jamie Bullins and excellent costumes by Andre Harrington. There’s also superb work from lighting designer Jasmine Williams, sound designer Kareem Deans, and props designer Emily Kennebeck. Nobody alive now will have been able to attend an actual 19th Century theatrical performance, but as staged here, we’re given as close an approximation as could be expected. 

Overall, this is a thoroughly well-staged and riveting production. It’s thoughtful, challenging, and historical but with important, timeless themes. If you’re familiar with the Shakespearean source and/or the historical background, or if you are not, this is a play that’s not to be missed. It’s a profound and remarkable theatrical experience.

Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting The African Company Presents Richard III at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 25, 2022

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