Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post
I had the chance to see an early performance of Great River Shakespeare Festival’s (GRSF) “The African Company Presents Richard III” last Friday. The play was full of comedy, a bit of romance, and a mix of heartbreak and hope as its Black characters look for freedom in an era of slavery. At its core, it’s a story about the power of art and who gets to wield it.
Shakespeare avoiders will be happy to know that you really don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare’s “Richard III” to enjoy “African Company.” Written by Minnesota great Carlyle Brown and based on a true story, the play follows a group of Black actors — some of them escaped slaves from the Caribbean or the American South — whose upstart African Theater Company’s production of “Richard III” is drawing crowds in 1821 New York City. White theater magnate Stephen Price (Doug Scholz-Carlson), whose ritzy venue is about to host its own production of the same play, finds this “Black Richard” to be an insult, unwelcome competition, and, in his narrow vision of progress, a pothole on the road to American greatness. Who knew Scholz-Carlson could get so mad?
While Price’s attempts to undermine the competition provide the main conflict, much of the play’s action revolves around the members of the African Company themselves. Ashley Bowen shines as Anne, the young female lead frustrated that self-absorbed co-star Jimmy (Adeyinka Adebola) can’t seem to see her for more than the part she plays. Adebola’s Jimmy is a would-be star, embarrassed by his lowly day job and the stereotypes white audiences want him to perform. For him, the African Company’s production is a chance to be truly seen. Bouncing between comic relief and the play’s most poignant lines, William Sturdivant’s Papa Shakespeare — nicknamed for his proclivity for quoting the English playwright — is the star of the show. He and Sarah (Teri Brown), share a climatic moment: two former slaves marveling at each other in royal finery, dreaming of what heroes they might play if they wrote their own stories.
The high of seeing these characters live out their dreams is so great that when the racist powers that be assert themselves, it really is a punch in the stomach.
I love a good vocabulary word, and “African Company” delivers on that front, as well. “Griot” (gree-OH) is a West African term for a traveling storyteller, poet, and musician, and in Brown’s play, a teller of anger-smoothing half-truths. Papa Shakespeare’s hilarious scene as a peacekeeping griot between two resentful co-stars was a highlight of the play.
Thirty-plus years after Brown wrote it, discussions of representation — what kinds of people get to see themselves in the limelight — are as relevant as ever. Director Corey Allen’s “The African Company Presents Richard III” makes its audiences feel the healing transcendence of former slaves seeing a Black king and queen on stage, the ennobling power of art, and the gut-wrenching pain of having that dignity denied.
“The African Company Presents Richard III” opens this Saturday, July 2, at 7 p.m. at the Winona State University Performing Arts Center. See grsf.org for more information.