Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The African Company Presents Richard III
It's also less about the bottled spider that was Shakespeare's Richard III and more about racial tension, ultimately played out through a Shakespearean lens. Instead of the usual twisted Plantagenet ambition, we get a fraught glimpse into the lives of ex-colonial slaves who relocated to New York City, in the play very thoughtfully directed by Black Rep founder Ron Himes. The martyrdom of some their past lives, as lowly sugar cane harvesters, and their ongoing servitude in New York, triggers righteous indignation in the actors as they find their way to the footlights.
But emancipating Shakespeare from the grasp of white theater, to find a new voice in Black performers, gets very tricky. It's still six years before the New York state assembly would abolish the American brand of slavery within its own state borders. And in that awkward in-between time, the fury of having a performance shut down by white police, after the famous first scene has already started, spurs a Shakespearean sense of insurrection within Black producer William Brown (played by the excellent Olajuwon Davis). And likewise in the heart of the star of the play-within-a-play, James Hewlett (the heroic Cameron Jamarr Davis).
The highly respected actor Eric Dean White does not hobble around, bent low as the villain, this time. But he does indeed plot and stomp with a cane as their white nemesis in the 1987 play, the proud impresario next door, Steven Price. Mr. White elegantly avoids outright deviltry, rooting his performance in an actor-manager's desire to stay financially afloat. He's no saint, either, eager to smack down an upstart competitor, taking grim satisfaction in his own Shakespearean machinations.
Coda Boyce plays Ann, the early 19th century actress who in turn plays Lady Anne Neville, the newly mourning widow of Edward of Westminster in Richard III. She's heartwarming, as she and Cameron Davis attempt to translate the source material's bizarre 1592 (-ish) seduction scene into her own emotional framework. Alex Jay adds much-needed color and lively narrative as Sarah, a theatrical costumer in 1821, as well as a friend to Ann. It could have been a Butterfly McQueen role, but she keeps it blessedly real, and makes it her own. Her stories about keeping house for a weirdly friendly white woman fill in a lot of the blanks about life in New York City two centuries ago.
In my own bygone acting days, I used to joke that the acting couple, so passionately in love at the first read-through, would usually not even be on speaking terms by opening night, at least off-stage. It's not quite the same here, but the rule holds true, in a more general sense, until age and wisdom step in to save the day. As sometimes happens in Shakespeare's own plays.
In fact, most of the warmth and charm and laughter of the show belong to the show's senior actor, Wali Jamal Abdullah, as Papa Shakespeare: a bongo-beating shaman who resolves the 1821 actors' romantic crisis with outstanding aplomb. There's very fine work, too, by Dustin Lane Petrillo as the Constable Man. Elsewhere, Cameron Davis' rueful, self-flagellating minstrel act (as leading man Hewlett) is shocking, humiliating, and horrifically ... delightful?
I'm sure Shakespeare could put it better than that. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" may be his closest sentiment in capturing Hewlett's wounded pride: remembering the Black actor's scornful audiences of years past. There's no shortage of anguish in the tragedies of the Bard. But the characters in this story still harmonize, using their own emotional tenor, without a lot of courtly iambic pentameter.
The African Company Presents Richard III continues through September 25, 2022, at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please call 314-534-3807 or visit www.theblackrep.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association
** Denotes Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society