Illinois Theatre Center

Driving south down Cicero, one experiences drama more gripping than can be had at journey’s end, at Park Forest’s Illinois Theatre Center. Compared to the excitement of driveup drug deals at Cicero and Madison, prostitutes soliciting on Cermak and Polk, and frightened deer dashing into the forests near Cicero and 159th, the impact of Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III is slight indeed. Like the faceless suburb in which ITC’s production resides, this work is safe, softpedaling the highly charged issue of America’s early racial discrimination.

The thing Brown’s drama has going for it is the largely overlooked history of America’s first black theater company. In the early part of the 19th century, in Greenwich Village, William Brown established the African Company, the resident troupe at his African Grove Theater, performing both original works and Shakespearean dramas–much to the dismay of New York’s white “legitimate” theater community, whose audiences were depleted by the African Company’s successful “amateur” productions. Only a few years after the African Company was formed, irate Caucaslan theater folk succeeded in having the company members arrested and the theater labeled a public nuisance and shut down.

Brown dramatizes these conflicts by focusing on the African Company’s decision to continue performing Richard III even as the whiteowned Park Theater plans its own production of the same play, starring the legendary Junius Booth. The Park Theater’s Stephen Price, who uses verbal threats and bribery to try to get the African Company to cease production, finally enlists the aid of a boneheaded Irish constable to close the African Grove and frame its defiant members for a fracas there, getting them tossed into the Eldridge Street jail.

Beneath the overt black vs. white conflict is another intriguing layer of struggle: though the African Company’s actors are “free,” occasionally they find themselves enslaved in the theater to a white master–Shakespeare–whose words force them to behave in ways they deem unnatural or undesirable. James Hewlett, a waiter by day and Richard III by night, may exult in the sense of escape when he impersonates the Bard’s physically and mentally deformed sovereign, but Ann Johnson, a maid, feels trapped by the role of the submissive Lady Anne, whose behavior mirrors her enslavement to her white employers.

Hewlett is Brown’s most consistently engaging character, wracked by an inner turmoil that energizes his theatrical performances but makes him arrogant and intransigent in real life. But unfortunately Brown’s other characters remain Styrofoam cutouts embellishing an interesting but flatly executed history lesson. Of the two women, Ann is the more complex–the other, Sarah, acts mainly as her confidante. But even Ann’s displeasure at playing Lady Anne seems grafted onto her character for thematic rather than dramatic reasons. One would think her objections to the role might have come out during rehearsals or earlier productions. But one gets the impression that, though the African Company’s production of Richard III has been going on for quite some time, Ann is just learning her lines. The men in the company besides Hewlett are inadequately developed: William Brown is all bluster and bravado, while Papa Shakespeare is a paragon of wisdom. (Even leaving the question of characterization aside, how would Brown explain the way these five people perform Richard III?) The white characters are even more unsatisfying: Price and the Irish constable are cartoonish bumblers, less partners in evil than a pompous Heckle and Jeckle.

Without fully developed characters, Brown’s play has been robbed of any value it might have had beyond its obvious historical lesson. There are some excellently written speeches and some witty exchanges, but overall The African Company feels both overand underwritten. A good deal of philosophy has been thrust into the mouths of characters who are not plausible enough to make their words ring true.

ITC’s production, directed by Steve S. Billig and Phillip Van Lear, who also play Price and Hewlett, complicates matters by failing to maintain a consistent tone. A jovial, happy-go-lucky feeling to this production undercuts both the villainy of its white characters and the nobility of its African American ones. The opening-night audience applauded the dastardly schemes of Price and the constable with as much fervor as they did those depicting the struggles of the African Company. And the final, jail-house scene has a haunting, meditative quality that doesn’t jibe with what’s gone before.

It’s also unclear whether the African Company’s portrayals of Shakespeare are meant to reveal brilliant amateurs or hapless dilettantes. In their mouths the words of the Bard are frequently clunky, and it’s a clunkiness that doesn’t always seem intentional. As Richard, Van Lear’s Hewlett is a rather credible Hamlet, somehow managing to make his character seem more misunderstood and misled than psychopathic and evil. The best performance of the lot comes from the magisterial Jim Jackson as Papa Shakespeare: he sounds more Shakespearean than anyone else, especially when not reciting his part.