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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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Richard III
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 8, 2016

Charlie Barron Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakespeare

Charlie Barron
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakespeare

Richard III, as told by William Shakespeare, may or may not be particularly accurate from a historical point of view. It’s clear whose side the Bard was on in the epic battle between the Houses of Lancaster and York, but what matters in drama is the how the story is told and how the characters portray that story. In St. Louis Shakespeare’s superbly cast new staging of the classic history play, raw ambition is at the forefront as Richard schemes his way to the throne.

Richard (Charlie Barron) begins the play as the Duke of Gloucester. In a series of asides to the audience that seem something like “talking head” interviews from a TV show, the unscrupulous Duke hatches and executes his plan to become King of England, starting with having his brother, George, Duke of Clarence (Maxwell Knocke) imprisoned and later killed. He wheedles his way into marriage with the (very) recently widowed Anne Neville (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) in order to secure an alliance with her family. Through the course of play Richard connives and manipulates, running afoul of the current queen, Elizabeth (Michelle Hand), the former queen, Margaret (Jeanitta Perkins), and even his own mother, the Duchess of York (Margeau Steinau). He enlists an array of henchmen and “advisors”, but his trust in them varies. Chief among these allies is the conflicted Duke of Buckingham (John Foughty), who is increasingly uneasy with Richard’s plans. Eventually ascending the throne, Richard is eventually led to war with his chief rival, the nobly depicted Henry, the Earl of Richmond (Erik Kuhn).

Regardless of historical quibbles and whose side the viewer may be on in this legendary clash, Shakespeare’s Richard is painted as a clear villain. Usually portrayed with a contorted body and a decided stoop, Richard here is portrayed by Baron as more upright in the posture department, but still as gleefully villainous. Walking with a limp is about the extent of the physical limitations of Barron’s Richard, although he brings a sharp physicality to the role, and a wily, conniving, viciously forceful manner. He holds the viewer’s attention with ease, and his scenes with Theby-Quinn’s defiantly reluctant Anne, Hand’s harried Elizabeth, Perkins’s confrontational Margaret, and Foughty’s principled, conflicted Buckingham are intensely charged. Other standouts include Chuck Winning in a dual role as King Edward IV and another of Richard’s allies, Sir Robert Brackenbury. There’s also a particularly menacing turn by Brennan Eller as hired assassin Sir James Tyrell. Erik Kuhn plays a reluctant assassin with sympathy, although his turn as the heroic Richmond is slightly less convincing. For the most part, though, this is an extremely strong cast, with too many strong performances to name.

It’s a well-staged production, with a multi-level set by Jason Townes that appropriately evokes the era. JC Krajicek’s costumes are colorful and detailed, and Steve Miller’s lighting sets the mood well. There’s also some impressive staging particularly in the battle scenes, bringing the Battle of Bosworth Field to the stage in a convincing, personal way.

St. Louis Shakespeare has brought a lot of humanity to this production. It’s easy to see Richard III, as portrayed by Shakespeare, as a monster, and while he’s clearly a villain, here he’s a decidedly three-dimensional villain. The people whose lives he manipulates, challenges and destroys are portrayed in vivid detail as well, particularly the women. It’s a fast-moving, never boring staging of this classic portrayal of of King’s ambitious, brutal ascent to the throne and his inevitable downfall. This Richard III at its most approachable, and most powerful.

Charlie Barron, cast Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakespeare

Charlie Barron, cast
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Richard III at the Ivory Theatre until April 17, 2016.

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