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Theater Review: Actors’ Theatre Presents Grim, Moving Slice of Theatrical History With ‘The African Company Presents Richard III’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Review: Actors’ Theatre Presents Grim, Moving Slice of Theatrical History With ‘The African Company Presents Richard III’Wilma Hatton as Papa Shakespeare and Chase McCants as James Hewlett in the 2021 Actors' Theatre of Columbus production of The African Company Presents Richard III - Photo credit: Jabari Johnson
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Actors’ Theatre continues their Changes season with a moving version of Carlyle Brown’s 1994 breakout historical drama The African Company Presents Richard III directed by David Glover.

The African Company of New York thrived in the 1820s in New York City with popular productions of Shakespeare’s work downtown at the African Grove, founded by William Brown (Jabari Johnson). Carlyle’s play focuses on a key moment of transition for the company. Terrified of competition, prominent white producer Stephen Price (Travis Horseman), conspires with a local constable (Sean Taylor) to shut down their theater – in the guise of fire codes and public disruption – triggering William to bring his company right next door to Price’s Park Theatre.

The pairings and small groups have an interesting Shakespearean resonance. Actor James Hewlett (Chase McCants), sparks with paramour Ann Johnson (Taylor Nelson), also playing Lady Anne Neville in their production of Richard III, as well as Johnson’s Brown. McCants’ Hewlett shines an interesting light on the ways ambition can suck the oxygen and color out of relationships, not leaving room for other people’s emotions. 

Occasionally the love story feels tacked on, but it pays off with two riveting scenes with Nelson: a first-act dagger in the heart as Johnson can’t make Hewlett see they’re not just talking about the play, and a live-wire trio with Wilma Hatton’s Papa Shakespeare playing mediator. A long soliloquy from McCants early in the second act cracks the talent and ambition he’s developed with a glimpse of the pain that came with developing.

Nelson’s remarkable performance threads life throughout The African Company Presents Richard III. Beyond the pairing with McCants, she’s also a grounding force for Sarah (Brooklyn Grace) and Johnson’s Brown in different ways. Nelson gracefully plays Ann’s quicksilver changes in how she relates to people but never loses the character’s center of gravity.

Grace’s Sarah is a delightful presence, making the most out of life with a wry look at her boss Lady Van Dam and an eye for the world forged out of the pain of, as she says, never having a last name of her own. Her chemistry with Nelson buoys the play when the first act periodically drags, helping give shading to the backstage rehearsal comedy sections.

Johnson’s William glues together and animates the company, similar to the role Brown plays. Watching the two degrees of ambition and what each man is and, most crucially, is not willing to give up, is at the heart of the play. The scene where Horseman’s delightfully sleazy Price tries to confront Brown is as invigorating as anything I’ve seen on a stage. 

As good as everyone else is here, Wilma Hatton’s mesmerizing take on the elderly sage Papa Shakespeare put my jaw in my lap. Her monologue that starts the second act, where the character turned his mocking nickname into a connection to the griots – the character is old enough he remembers Africa, he wasn’t born here or enslaved as a child – made my heart almost burst through my chest and she deploys this energy again and again.

Glover’s direction works well with the characters in these smaller groups: he captures a blend of intense naturalism and the heightened energy of history-merged-to-myth. The themes of fatalistic ambition get inverted in this play as the characters’ self-determination gets tarred by the corrosive power of colonizers who believe they’re working from a birthright instead of propped up by a rigged system.

Not all the choices work. Glover gets an interesting, powerful metaphorical energy out of placing the two white actors center stage and keeping the Black actors on the sidelines for 90% of the play. That pays off with Hatton’s Papa Shakespeare sitting in the middle when the lights go up on the second act, the first time we’ve seen any of the Black characters there. But it also leads to some blocking where the characters seem to obscure each other, like the bigger message subsumed communicating the individual scenes.

The pacing problems in the slow first act – and the odd flashback structure of the framing sequence that’s built into the play itself – also led to some attention wandering. But each slack moment in the first act had a deep, resonant payoff in the terrific second act.

The African Company Presents Richard III is a still-powerful play about a piece of American history that doesn’t get talked about as often as it should and this production reminds us sadly how far American society still has to go in the struggle to reaffirm everyone’s humanity. 

The African Company Presents Richard III runs through July 18 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at Schiller Park. For more info and reserved seating visit theactorstheatre.org.

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