Gripping drama from 'African Company'

December 25, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In many respects, Carlyle Brown's "The African Company," 5/8

which is receiving its East Coast premiere at Washington's Arena Stage, is an ideal black history play. Not only is it informative and entertaining, it's about theater.

Specifically, it is about a real-life black Shakespearean troupe called the African Company, which performed in New York City in the early 19th century. Run by actor-manager William Henry Brown, the company forms a fascinating chapter of American theatrical history that is all too often glossed over, or ignored.

So, what better forum than the stage to honor this troupe's contribution to American culture?

The playwright, who has a penchant for history, begins at the end. Stephen Price, one of the white impresarios of the day, makes his entrance apologizing to the audience for a disturbance outside the theater. The perpetrators, he explains, are now in jail, where they will remain "until they swear in blank verse never to perform Shakespeare again."

Their "crime," we learn, was daring to mount Shakespeare's "Richard III" next door to the theater where Price was opening his own production starring British actor Junius Brutus Booth.

Price's introductory speech is a bit hokey, as is the play's slow-to-unfold flashback structure. Adding to these shortcomings is director Tazewell Thompson's frequent practice of having the actors face forward and declaim. Presumably, this is intended to suggest the style of the period, but in practice it means actors repeatedly have their backs to the characters they are addressing.

Nonetheless, the fervor of the African Company cannot be daunted. To manager Brown (Jonathan Earl Peck); his leading man, James Hewlett (Leon Addison Brown); and the character actor known as "Papa Shakespeare" (Wendell Wright), theater is more than play-acting. And, like most of Arena's fine cast, these three assume their roles with an intensity that breathes new life into historical figures.

"Colored folks act all the time," Hewlett says, explaining that he first acted when he pretended to be a sailor to escape slavery on a sugar plantation. The play's most stirring scene comes when Hewlett convinces his leading lady, Ann Johnson -- touchingly played by Gail Grate -- not to quit the company.

Distressed by a Shakespearean scene that has long troubled scholars, Johnson fears that playing Lady Anne -- who married the murderer of her husband and father-in-law -- will reflect badly on her. Brown's Hewlett, who saws the air with a vengeance when delivering the Bard's verse, gives his most heartfelt performance when he explains that seeing Johnson in Lady Anne's royal gowns fulfills the audience's dreams.

What happens next approaches theatrical magic; it is like looking at a row of mirrors in which actors playing actors demonstrate how art reflects life. With impressive logic, Hewlett compares Lady Anne's situation with the concessions Johnson must make daily as a domestic worker, and almost in a breath, the pair slides seamlessly into "Richard III's" famous wooing scene.

Not all of "The African Company" is this deftly handled. When the company is jailed, it seems a little too convenient that manager Brown happens to have brought along the script of a new play. And the character of Price, played by a dandyish Jed Diamond, is too much of a caricature, down to his villain's black cape.

But these creaky elements barely dent the intriguing subject matter. And Arena's company performs "The African Company" with such gusto, it's almost as if this overlooked troupe is finally getting its due. The result is not only satisfying theater, it's satisfying history as well.

'The African Company'

Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave., S.W., Washington.

When: Performed in rotating repertory with "Blood Knot" through March 28. Next performance is tomorrow at 8 p.m. Call for complete schedule.

Tickets: $19-$37.

Call: (202) 488-3300.

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