EMAV Review: 'The African Company' at NCT was funny, furious and uniquely American ★★★★

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

Maurice-Aimé Green as 'James Hewlett'

Images by Josh Hawkins, UNLV Creative Services

★★★★☆ - Delicious

Did you know that there was an African Theatre Company in 1821 America?

During Nevada Conservatory Theatre’s (NCT) delicious 4-Star production of "THE AFRICAN COMPANY PRESENTS RICHARD III”, we learn that 6 years before New York abolished slavery and 40 years before the beginning of the Civil War, this theatre company existed. William Henry Brown, a free black American, organized a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

What do the words of a dead White poet mean to a group of Black actors? Everything, actually. After all, these are artists forced to spend their days disguised as maids and waiters. Hiding their gifts along with their feelings, until the sun sets and the time comes to discover themselves in Shakespeare's poetry. His writing demanding that everyone find their own way through his words, haters be damned. A backstage story like no other -- funny, furious and uniquely American.

Breanna McCallum as 'Sarah'

Shakespeare is the chosen cultural battleground in this inventive retelling of a little known, yet pivotal event in the history of America’s first black theatre company. Knowing they are always under prejudicial pressures from white society, and facing their own internal shakeups, the African Company battles for time, space, audiences and togetherness. The Company presents classic plays at a theatre in downtown Manhattan for both black and white audiences. But they are challenged when they dare to put on Shakespeare’s Richard III at the same time as the powerful and popular Park Theatre. Carlyle Brown’s humorous and touching play, based on real-life events, dares to ask the question: does Shakespeare belong to everyone?

Brandon Dawson as 'The Constable Man' and Cameron Stuart Bass as ' William H. Brown'

Their competition, Stephen Price, an uptown, Broadway-type impresario, is producing Richard III at the same time that the African Company's production and has promised a famous English actor overflowing audiences if he plays Richard in Price's theatre. Fearing the competition of the African Company's production, which is garnering large white audiences, Price manipulates the law and closes down the theatre. The Company rebounds and finds a space right next door to Price's theatre. At the rise of curtain of the next performance, Price causes the arrest of some of the actors in a trumped-up riot charge. The play ends with the Company, surviving, its integrity intact, and about to launch an equally progressive new chapter in the American theatre: They'll soon be producing the first black play written by black Americans of their day.

Maurice-Aimé Green as 'James Hewlett' and Riyadh as 'Papa Shakespeare'

The very capable cast included Cameron Stuart Bass as William H. Brown; Maurice-Aimé Green as James Hewlett; Brandon Dawson as The Constable-Man; Nate Marble as Stephen Price; Breanna McCallum as Sarah; Riyadh as Papa Shakespeare; and Lauren Washington as Ann Johnson.

Lauren Washington as 'Ann Johnson'

Director Melissa Maxwell did an admirable job keeping the action moving and getting the ensemble comfortable and confident in their transitions between the play-within-a-play. The designers created an intimate and authentic proscenium stage, with an exposed backstage above the curtain line and an ample apron in front of the proscenium arch.

The production and design team includes scenic designer Trevor Dotson, lighting designer Andrew Killion, co-sound designers Megan Thompson and Lina Lim, costume designer Hailey Eakle, technical director Ryan Pope, dramaturg Dr. Lezlie Cross, and production stage manager M. Sohaa Smith.

Carlyle Brown is a writer/performer and artistic director of Carlyle Brown & Company, based in Minneapolis. He is a Core Writer of the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, and an alumnus of New Dramatists in New York. He has served on the board of directors of The Playwrights' Center and Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the nonprofit professional theatre and is a member of the board of the Jerome Foundation. He is the 2006 recipient of The Black Theatre Network's Winona Lee Fletcher Award for outstanding achievement and artistic excellence, a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, a 2010 recipient of the Otto Rene' Castillo Award for Political Theatre, and 2010 United States Artists Friends Fellowship.

The next production at NCT is Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding, directed by Allegra Libonati and running March 8th through March 17th.

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