Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s The African Company Presents Richard III

The African Company Presents Richard III
Author: Carlyle Brown
Date Attended: 13 September 2011 matinée
Venue: August Bowmer Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Director: Seret Scott

Why this play now?

The African Company Presents takes place in New York in 1822, while New York has just recently (in the past year, or two) passed legislation to end slavery in the region. The story revolves around The African Company which is, as you can guess from the title, presenting Richard III. They have the audacity to perform the play at the same time as the Park Theatre’s performance of the same play. Based on real events, the story focuses on a small company of actors, most of whom were recently slaves, as they perform Richard III despite Stephen Price’s (the manager of the Park Theatre) best efforts to shut them down.

The danger with period pieces is audiences boiling their reaction down to a simplified, “Look how far we’ve come, now where’s the bar?” It’s a risky endeavor especially when period pieces revolve around race, gender, or sexuality. No one wants their work to be dismissed so easily, so contemporary playwrights tackling historical moments need to surface other elements that force audiences to confront themselves as much as the past. Brown uses this moment in history to talk about the relationship between art, race, and revolt.

One of my favorite moments was Jimmy nodding to the goal of any play, or at least what we hope the goal of theatre when he says (paraphrasing), “What are we going to do? Change the world with a play?” (Granted not every production aims so high, but I believe we should always start with great aspirations.) He goes on further to say he doesn’t want to incite a riot; he acts to be loved. It was this debate that felt incredibly vital for me. The issue of art vs. entertainment; merely putting on a play vs. hoping to change the world through theatre; fear vs. action. But then again, that’s my favorite theatre topic.

In the final moments of the play, after all the actors are imprisoned (which was some lovely staging), Billy presents a new play, one that will showcase their unique voice and experience. Billy Brown’s play, The Drama of King Shotaway, was the first known play written by an African-American. I loved how it ended with claiming their voice and how Shakespeare was the impetus, but not the end-all be-all (reference intended) in art, theatre, or equality.

What’s happening in the work thematically?

  • Performance of race, gender, job roles, royalty, etc.
  • Necessity of theatre
  • Theatre as a symbol of rebellion and revolt
  • Theatre, and Shakespeare specifically, as the art of the masses, not for the few (Shakespearean “Holla”)
  • Parallel story contrasting Richard and Anne with Jimmy and Anne

What moments encapsulate the story?

  • “We’ve proven we can do anything with nothing.”
  • Papa Shakespeare’s dream about the ladder going up and up
  • Papa Shakespeare explaining what he does as griot
  • Jimmy’s line (paraphrasing) “What are we going to do? Change the world with a play?”
  • Billy’s thoughts on Shakespeare near the end. He says that the audience is here to see what they, the actors, can bring to the piece, “So speak Shakespeare however you want to speak it.”
  • Billy getting Price to negotiate a number to end their run early only to turn down the offer because he had no intention of actually selling his performances, only to prove that Price believed they could still be bought
  • Billy’s subsequent monologue about his auction when he was first brought to America

Were there moments of disunity, or areas where the story-telling deviated from the apparent desired direction? (apparent in this case meaning the direction as it appeared to this member of the audience)

I felt that Price and the Constable were highly expositional and in some ways, unnecessary. The only scene in which Price felt necessary was the negotiation scene with Billy. Otherwise, I felt like he and the Constable could be cut. Price’s opening monologue set us in the period, which was helpful but I felt could have been accomplished with the African Company alone. I’m torn though, because I don’t know how else to do the negotiation scene with Price. It’s important for us to see that whites were still trying to buy blacks in any way they could legally accomplish, and that Billy Brown as a character and a person would not stand for it, but wouldn’t shy away from performing acquiescence to prove his point. The “change of heart” was a wonderful moment, and it led so well into his monologue about how much his old master had spent on him at the auction.

Other than that, I would have a liked a few scene edits, and more of Billy and Papa Shakespeare because they said the most interesting things. However, wanting more generally isn’t an disunity issue.

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