Long before Ethel Waters, Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones, three modern-day African-American performers often referred to as theatrical legends, there was The African Co.
Now all but forgotten, this group of pioneers is considered the first black theater troupe in America, beginning its operation out of a tea garden in Lower Manhattan some 40 years before the Civil War.
Organized by one William Henry Brown, who would go on to become a celebrated playwright and viewed as an intellectual and visionary, the company was short-lived, the victim of racial intolerance.
How appropriate that an intriguing historical drama based on the story of the company and some of its members comes to town just in time to help kick off Black History Month.
Called “The African Company Presents Richard III,” it’s the latest offering from Titan Theatre Co. at Queens Theatre, where it runs through Feb. 9.
Written in 1994 by Carlyle Brown, and directed here with a knowing hand by Marcus Denard Johnson, the play (actually, a play-within-a-play), believed to be an amalgam of historical and fictionalized characters, offers a glimpse into the struggle faced by black performing artists, providing a still-timely message.
It focuses on an all-black production of the Shakespearean play of the title, being put on by The African Company.
At its center is a young man named James Hewlett, a real-life actor who played the pivotal title role in Brown’s production about the hunchbacked ruler.
Embodied here by the resourceful Darius Aushay, he is dignified and passionate, a waiter by day who finds escape from reality every night on stage. Hewlett can also be arrogant, as becomes clear throughout the course of the play. It’s obvious that Aushay, undoubtedly like Hewlett, has the chops to deliver energized — and much lauded — performances.
While the play focuses to a great extent on the black-vs.-white conflict, a romantic subplot emerges, involving Hewlett and a young, innocent woman named Ann, played with an unbridled gamut of emotions by Psacoya Guinn.
Ann is employed as a maid. Unlike Hewlett, she finds little solace on stage. She feels trapped in her role as the submissive Lady Anne, and fears audiences might confuse her with her character. She is madly in love with Hewlett, but much to her chagrin, he remains oblivious to her feelings.
Mario Haynes offers a sturdy portrayal of Brown, while Rachel Davenport brings more than a touch of levity to the proceedings as Sarah, the no-nonsense confidante to Ann and a company actress and seamstress.
Hefty in figure and personality, Anthony Michael Stokes makes a memorable Papa Shakespeare, so mockingly nicknamed, he says, because of his inability to express himself eloquently.
As portrayed by Stokes, he is majestic and a definite paragon of wisdom, putting to tremendous use (and to great comic effect) his abilities as a griot, or African tribal storyteller, in one of the play’s pivotal scenes.
The two white characters — the villains of the piece — are less well drawn than the others. Tristan Colton does what he can with Stephen Price, a producer who sees to it that Brown’s production gets shut down. Doing his actual dirty work is John St. Croix as the bumbling, corrupt Constable, a cartoonish figure who invades the production in mid-performance.
A line read aloud from a review of Brown’s production opines that the performance features “ebony interpretations of the Bard,” suggesting that Shakespeare’s words should not be spoken by actors of color. The current penchant for colorblind casting sheds light on the very issue.
‘The African Company Presents Richard III’
When: Thu.-Sat., Feb. 6-8, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 9, 4 p.m.
Where: Queens Theatre, 14 United Nations Ave. South, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Tickets: $20. (347) 738-5602,