Review by Blair Godshall of â€œThe African Company Presents Richard IIIâ€: NKU Theatre
NKU Theatre opens their season with â€œThe African Company Presents Richard IIIâ€ byÂ Carlyle Brown. His playÂ draws upon the history of the first black theater company in the U.S. â€” the African Grove Company, or the African Company, founded by William Henry Brown (eloquently played by playwrighting major Isaiah Reaves).Â In 1822, Brownâ€™s production of â€œRichard IIIâ€ wentÂ upÂ against a productionÂ atÂ Park Theater starring Junius Brutus Booth (father of John Wilkes), much to Park producer Stephen Priceâ€™s vexation.
Donâ€™t let the title mislead you. You will not be watching Richard III performed by the African Company. The play-within-the-play construct allows the actors in William Brownâ€™s company confront their own conflicts between each other and the critics (and white audiences) who canâ€™t seemingly accept and appreciate them as artists. Towards the beginning, James Hewlett (Solidly performed by JeShaun Jackson), who plays Richard, rails against a review describing him as a â€œdapper, wooly haired waiterâ€ and grudgingly credits his performance as a â€œplausible imitation.â€
We see theÂ physical and emotionalÂ struggle of the charactersÂ who must fight to get their time on stage with the ever-present threat of theÂ Constable halting their attempts to proceed with the performance.There isÂ an unevenness in the script that, even with the incredible production value,Â itÂ doesnâ€™t entirely overcome, particularlyÂ as it relates to theÂ exposition-heavy first act. A subplot around the romance of Hewlett and Anne, the young woman who plays Lady Anne to his Richard,Â only goes as deep as surface levelÂ forÂ the audienceÂ to really root for them, despite the sly matchmaking ofÂ Thomas Les Smithâ€™sÂ Papa ShakespeareÂ (which by the way, his makeup was on point).Â The drama isnâ€™t perfectÂ but Darryl Harrisâ€™s thoroughÂ and distinguished directing style along with the sound effects (most of which are made onstage), the marriage of music and rhythm, the Greek-Like Chorus and shadow puppetry (yes, these shadow puppets are captivating)Â gives the audience many compellingÂ moments toÂ draw them in and make it worth experiencing.
â€œThe African Company Presents Richard IIIâ€ plays at NKU Corbett Theatre through Oct 6th. Tickets are available on their website https://nku.edu/academics/sota/theatre/season.html.