NKU’s “Africa Company Presents: Richard III” Tackles The Thespian Black Experience

Review by Jenifer Moore of ”The African Company Presents: Richard III”: NKU

Racism and an ode to African ancestral history take center stage in NKU’s season opener “The African Company Presents: Richard III” by Carlyle Brown. Set in the 1820s in Manhattan, the production fluidly chronicles the lives of African-American artists at the African Grove Company (the country’s first black known theatre group) who are feeling familiar pains of many performing artists–working in the service industry during the day and honing their craft at night. However, there is an additional racial context to this particular troupe. Over the course of the 145-minute show, audiences are taken back in time to experience how their love for performing arts and all that it encompasses is weighed down by the feeling of not being accepted due to the color of their skin. 

The production, directed by Daryl Harris with additional prologue by Isaiah Reaves opens strongly with a homage to African history backed by a magnificent sound derived from traditional African drums. Reaves in his role as William Henry Brown, founder of the African Grove Company, infuses great historical context about the experience of black Americans in the country and how, despite their success, they still feel the brutally of racism. Fathead images of notable and accomplished black performers such as Dorothy Dandridge, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Sidney Poiter offer a nice visual to the message that Reaves is attempting to convey. As noted in the Reaves’ production notes, “every artistic move [he] makes is guided by those who have paved the way for him as an artist.” This is true to form and a great way to bestow honor. 

As the production continues, audiences are taken on a journey as the performers–set to open Richard III–learn that a rival, white theatre company are planning to open the same play doors from their feet. The pain, anger and anguish that the performers feel is all too familiar as there have been many instances of white performing artists stealing the blood, sweat, tears and talent of black artists and making it their own.  

While this is a play-within-a-play, at times the performance seems disjointed and hard to follow. However, Jeremiah Kern’s contributions with the sound design bring some cohesiveness to the production with the use of the Foley technique that brings sound with the use of common everyday items. As the Foley technique is legendary in the world of performing arts, it is impressive that NKU undertook the task of replicating this for “The African Company Presents: Richard III” when digital technology would have worked just fine. 

NKU’s The African Company Presents: Richard III is great for audiences to see as it offers another glimpse into the struggle of black performing artists. “The African Company Presents: Richard III” runs until Oct 6 at the NKU Corbett Theatre. Tickets and more information can be found at www.nku.edu/academics/sota/theatre/season/africancompany.html.