Lost Times, Claimed Places
OSF’s The African Company Presents Richard III
The Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, and between those two times African-Americans lived in a patchwork of ways, slowly being freed in the Northern states or slowly being pulled into deeper and more horrifying networks of harm in the cotton-growing Southern states. In New York — where the slave trade was banned in 1788 and slavery was gradually abolished in the state itself — free blacks born in the Colonies or the new United States mixed with former Caribbean islanders. What did those African-Americans, many of whom worked as servants for the middle- and upper-class whites of the burgeoning town, do for fun?
One thing they did was form a company to present some of the plays of Shakespeare, as OSF’s The African Company Presents Richard III attests. Set in 1821, the play by Carlyle Brown depicts a clash of cultures, a time in which the African Company (a real historical entity, founded by one William Brown, played by Peter Macon in this production) and an upper-crust white playhouse, run by Stephen Price (Michael Elich), plan to present Richard III on the same night.
To the thin plot of Billy Brown vs. Stephen Price the playwright adds a frustrated love story between Ann Johnson (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and Jimmy Hewlett (Kevin Kenerly), but at the moral center of the African Company are Papa Shakespeare (Charles Robinson) and Sarah (Gina Daniels). One scene with those two is better than most of the rest of the play which, however important it is — and oh, it is important — plods along with the outcome assured. The final scene, however, does suggest something wonderful: Out of the ashes of denial, new talent will rise, new tales will emerge, and free blacks will write their own way into history.
The African Company Presents Richard III runs through Nov. 5 at the Bowmer Theatre. Suzi Steffen