The Winter of Their Discontent

The play's the thing with the historical drama The African Company Presents Richard III.

The African Company Presents Richard III recounts events that, four decades before the Civil War, prompted the nation's first African-American theater group to perform a Shakespearean tragedy next door to the Manhattan auditorium where a white company's version was in production.

Despite threats of civil unrest and objections from an influential white producer, the upstart African Company's historic, though somewhat calamitous, effort raised a number of important -- and lingering -- questions: Should minority actors aspire to perform the works of white playwrights, or only those written by minorities? Should plays by minority dramatists, however universal in scope, be considered off-limits to white actors, directors, designers and producers -- and vice versa? And who, if anyone, determines what forms of artistic expression are suitable for a particular troupe or audience?

While the potential for gripping debate abounds in the Shadow Theatre Company's production, Carlyle Brown's drama sometimes feels more like a dry, meandering retrospective. The characters, who are based on real people, spend a great deal of time ruminating about what will happen to them if they flout the authorities and go ahead with plans to present their version of Richard III. But when the curtain finally goes up on their ambitious undertaking, one wishes the playwright had curtailed his philosophizing and focused more intently on the characters' struggle to find their individual voices in a world that increasingly values homogenization.

They stand tall: The cast of  The African Company Presents Richard III.
They stand tall: The cast of The African Company Presents Richard III.

Even so, director Jeffrey W. Nickelson and company manage to lend some warmth, humor and passion to Brown's extended history lesson. The two-hour production, which is being presented at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, is especially stirring during scenes that depict the characters' attempts to present their own version of Shakespeare's tale instead of one that merely borrows from -- or, worse, imitates -- English tradition.

And nowhere is that struggle more evident than when leading actor James Hewlett (Vincent C. Hardy) agonizes over whether to appear as the clubfooted Richard. Draped with a bright-red cape, the barefoot Hewlett stands stock still at the edge of the stage while recalling the ways in which white theatergoers in Saratoga ran him down and laughed at him when he performed a touring one-man show. Unwilling to pander to audience expectations but equally unable to express outrage at their demands that he sing songs laced with racial put-downs, the gifted classical actor talks of how his mouth felt like it was full of stones. "And with every word I spoke, a stone fell to the floor," he remembers.

Hewlett's ambivalent feelings about rocking the theatrical establishment are echoed by sometime-actress and full-time domestic Ann Johnson (Jada Roberts), who refuses to play the character of Lady Anne, a grieving widow who succumbs to Richard's slimy advances at the precise moment that she should pierce his heart with a sword. Outraged that Shakespeare's hunchback king thinks he can take advantage of Lady Anne's weaknesses -- but more upset that Hewlett has hitherto been unwilling to express his love for her -- Johnson declares that she has no desire to be compromised by either Shakespeare or her leading man. Luckily, a Caribbean-accented griot (Dwayne Carrington), dubbed Papa Shakespeare by one of his former overseers, uses some old-fashioned diplomacy to convince the two that they belong together. Nevertheless, Hewlett continues in his stubborn belief that it's impossible to "change the world with a play." Just when it looks as though Hewlett will give in to the wishes of rival producer Stephen Price (Jan Van Sickle), the African Company's irrepressible impresario, William Henry Brown (Vincent C. Robinson), manages to convince his star player of the responsibility he bears to his colleagues, his audience, and, most important, himself.

Despite the dramatist's tendency to ramble, director Nickelson emphasizes the characters' underlying humanity and elicits a series of ennobling portrayals. By turns charming and incensed, Hardy rises to the occasion during Hewlett's transformation near play's end, delivering Richard's opening monologue with a tight-lipped anger that bespeaks Hewlett's contempt for those theatergoers who would mock his artistry. Hardy is strongly supported by Robinson's fully dimensionalized portrait of the tenacious William Henry Brown, Sickle's understated turn as the condescending Price, Carrington's delightful rendering of the quick-witted Papa, and Kurt Soderstrom's wry, nicely shaded take on the officious constable.

But the most compelling portrayal comes from Roberts, who tempers Ann Johnson's obstinacy with an ineffable tenderness. She's particularly convincing when, painfully aware that her fierce pride is both a catalyst and obstacle to fulfillment, Johnson declares to her girlfriend, "I want somebody with me in this life, and I'm gonna hurt until I get him." Her other scenes with Sarah, who is played with affecting -- and infectious -- strength by Chawnte Williams, radiate with heartwarming simplicity. In fact, Roberts's beautifully controlled, wonderfully free performance makes one wish that she were given more of a chance to explore the complex role of Shakespeare's Lady Anne.

Then again, splicing more of the Bard's play into Carlyle Brown's study would likely negate the impact of the final, moving scene, which takes place in the Eldridge Street Jail. Imprisoned on trumped-up charges, the members of the African Company find freedom and hope from an unlikely source. And in the space of a few short seconds, the ancient troupe's dilemma doesn't seem so far removed from Shadow Theatre's efforts to establish itself as a legitimate player on Denver's crowded stage.

The events that landed the African Company in jail inspired the plucky producer William Henry Brown to write The Drama of King Shotaway, considered the first play by an African-American. Holding aloft his newly written piece about the rebellion of the Caribs of St. Vincent, Brown's character urges his colleagues to satisfy their dreams by unshackling themselves from the bondage of assimilation. "Restore yourselves to the inheritance of your ancestors," he says. It's a powerful exhortation that underscores Nickelson and company's admirable resolve to break free from cultural chains.

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