IN the New York of the early 1820s, some ex-slaves from the South and runaway plantation workers from the Caribbean formed The African Company, a theatre group that performed Shakespeare.
A production of Richard III drew large audiences, earned good if rather patronising reviews and was notable for the novel if provocative fact that it was the whites in the audience who were partitioned off.
But it was a provocation too far when the company planned to shift its production to aŠ ballroom next to the swanky Park Theatre, which was about to premiere its own Richard III, with an imported English star in the lead. The manager of the Park makes plans to stifle the competition.
This is the historical basis of Carlyle Brown’s intriguing and very well-staged play.
It recreates a fascinating slice of racial, cultural and political history – and at the very end the political dimension is emphasised by a powerful dramatic device.
There are excellent performances throughout Chuck Mike’s production for Collective Artistes. The set is adaptable and effective – the skeleton of a slave ship, with chains festooned as a kind of rear curtain.
There are good breakout moments, where characters soliloquise in ŠShakespearean fashion.
Especially effective was a saddening scene in which the impressive Charlie Folorunsho, as lead actor James Hewlett, recreates a humiliation when he attempted to perform a speech from Hamlet, but was forced by the mocking audience into singing a racially degrading song.
A clever detail in the production is that when members of the African Company perform passages from Richard II they do so in a highly mannered style that one imagines was the norm in the 1820s.
The African Company Presents Richard III is performed again tonight.