Playwright: Carlyle Brown
At: Congo Square Theatre Company
Phone: 312-587-2292; $30
Runs through: Oct. 15
By Jonathan Abarbanel
Plays are very elastic, but sometimes are stretched too far. They can expand to encompass many characters, several subplots and various ideas, but only if the author has sufficient skill to make the elements mesh and serve each other well. That's not the case with Carlyle Brown's historical drama.
The African Company Presents Richard III is fact-based: the first Negro theater company set up shop in New York's Greenwich Village in 1821. Slavery still ruled the South ( 42 years before the Emancipation Proclamation ) , but African Americans of the North were free men and women, although racist attitudes still prevailed within much of the white population. The African Company attracted a substantial Negro audience, but also some whites who came out of curiosity or to ridicule the Black performers. In any case, racist politics and the instigation of a competing white theater manager quickly shut down the African Company, which nearly completely receded into history until rediscovered by Carlyle Brown.
If Brown stuck to telling the tale of The African Company, it's likely his play would be more effective. But he wants it to be a personal story as well, and even a love story in which the leading lady loves the leading man and he—blindly—doesn't see it. But the love subplot is awkwardly developed, left unfinished and ultimately doesn't affect the principal story, so it simply gets in the way. Similarly, deep in Act II the leading man has an emotional meltdown that comes from nowhere, and picks a fight with his business partner, for which the play does not prepare the audience. Like a storm blowing by, it also does not affect the final outcome. In short, despite interesting subject matter, Brown doesn't display the skill necessary to make the various elements mesh and serve each other well.
Director Aaron Todd Douglas's good actors do what they can with the inconsistent material, and take advantage of the best moments. As James Hewlett, the leading man, wiry Anthony Irons displays the presence and gravitas that have marked his previous work. Ericka Ratcliff, as leading lady Ann Johnson, offers statuesque looks and understanding of her character's emotional turmoil. Allen Gilmore, Jacqueline Williams and Ronald Conner provide solid support, as one expects from such veterans. Sean Michael Kaplan ( as the rival manager ) and Jonathan Putman ( as a corrupt cop ) play the white baddies, making the most of the language in one-dimensional roles.
Scenic designer Joanna Iwanicka has done well on a budget, providing an historic urban look with theatrical flair. Christine Pascual's costumes are not entirely authentic but they have character and sufficiently suggest period flavor.
The play is not entirely satisfying, but is a good choice of choice history for Congo Square.