In The African Company Presents Richard III, black performers wear, and then drop, the mask | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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In The African Company Presents Richard III, black performers wear, and then drop, the mask

Two dueling theater companies debate who owns Shakespeare.

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Based on true events in 1822 Manhattan, The African Company Presents Richard III, written by Carlyle Brown, tells the tale of two rival theater companies, one black and one white.

An appreciation for Shakespeare is widely considered the mark of a "cultured" person, yet culture is often bred in exclusivity. Who owns Shakespeare? Can neophytes without training or perfect diction deserve acclaim? Director Ron OJ Parson expertly highlights Brown's examination of respectability politics and code-switching and draws a direct line from slavery to its racist legacy today in the form of grammar shamers and "Permit Pattys."

Brandon Greenhouse gives a poignant performance as a leading man striving to transcend his circumstances. Matty Robinson shifts seamlessly from crackling comedy to drama as the ambitious African Theatre owner. Johnny Lee Davenport delights as Griot Papa Shakespeare, whose imperfect English belies his mastery of communication as he matches wits with the hilariously cranky Velma Austin as Sarah, his would-be sweetheart. Jack Hickey is pitch-perfect as Stephen Price, the rival theatre owner, jovially delivering discrimination through concern trolling. Joel Ottemheimer adds refreshing levity as the Constable, and Ariel Richardson shines as Ann, a vulnerable woman whose role will always be underwritten onstage and in life.

Fittingly, the show opens with the poem "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar. When the mask finally drops, it shatters. This is a top-notch mirthful and powerful production at Oak Park Festival Theatre, one of the most charming theater spaces in all of Chicagoland.   v

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