“The African Company Presents Richard III” is a Present For Audiences

Review by Blair Godshall of “The African Company Presents Richard III”: NKU Theatre

NKU Theatre opens their season with “The African Company Presents Richard III” by Carlyle Brown. His play draws upon the history of the first black theater company in the U.S. — the African Grove Company, or the African Company, founded by William Henry Brown (eloquently played by playwrighting major Isaiah Reaves). In 1822, Brown’s production of “Richard III” went up against a production at Park Theater starring Junius Brutus Booth (father of John Wilkes), much to Park producer Stephen Price’s vexation.

Don’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 Brown’s company confront their own conflicts between each other and the critics (and white audiences) who can’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 “dapper, wooly haired waiter” and grudgingly credits his performance as a “plausible imitation.”

We see the physical and emotional struggle of the characters who must fight to get their time on stage with the ever-present threat of the Constable halting their attempts to proceed with the performance.There is an unevenness in the script that, even with the incredible production value, it doesn’t entirely overcome, particularly as it relates to the exposition-heavy first act. A subplot around the romance of Hewlett and Anne, the young woman who plays Lady Anne to his Richard, only goes as deep as surface level for the audience to really root for them, despite the sly matchmaking of Thomas Les Smith’s Papa Shakespeare (which by the way, his makeup was on point). The drama isn’t perfect but Darryl Harris’s thorough 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) gives the audience many compelling moments to draw them in and make it worth experiencing.

“The African Company Presents Richard III” plays at NKU Corbett Theatre through Oct 6th. Tickets are available on their website https://nku.edu/academics/sota/theatre/season.html.