The longest-established black theater company in North Texas is presenting the area premiere of a drama about the first black acting company in America. The Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth also has a new artistic director. And KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the man and the drama share a similar spirit.
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Carlyle Brown’s drama, The African Company Presents Richard III, is based on a real performer and a real theater troupe. James Hewlett was probably America’s first professional black actor. In 1821, he dared to play William Shakespeare’s Richard III onstage in New York. He’d learned about acting (and Richard III, in particular) working for George Frederick Cooke, the first great British tragedian to tour America (and die here, drunk, in 1813).
In Brown’s play, Hewlett has to defend himself and acting in general to his fellow African-Americans. He explains that having been forced into being maids and servants, they’re already playing roles — in a kind of early, theatrical demonstration of W.E.B. Dubois’ idea of racial ‘double consciousness.’ Ergo, they are the real actors.
Rick Spivey plays Hewlett in the Jubilee Theatre production:
Spivey: “As fine an actor as George Cooke was, he only performed from night to night while we perform all the time. I remember the old fool was playing King Lear. We were standing in the wings when he turns to me and he says, ‘Hewlett, it’s a damned shame they don’t let you out on stage with me. You could play Lear’s Fool. You’d be perfect.’ And that’s when I knew, and I knew that he knew – that that was me underneath Lear’s robe, a King Lear that tore the WHOLE HOUSE DOWN.”
Garrett: “I think the most important message that I take away from the piece is that it is the birth of the African-American theater.”
Garrett: “After they go through all the trials and tribulations to present Shakespeare, they begin to create their own work. Here we find ourselves at our genesis. This is where we come from.”
Jubilee Theatre is 30 years old – the same age as Garrett. His own genesis onstage began in middle school in Houston when a teacher steered him toward theater.
Garrett: “And I loved performing. I loved being an actor and exploring the theater. And she insisted that I audition for the High School for the Performing Arts.”
That’s Houston’s equivalent to Dallas’ Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet. At the Houston high school, Garrett began writing plays and directing them. Since then, he’s won playwrighting awards, he’s been an assistant director on Broadway and he’s staged more than 150 productions for Walt Disney Entertainment in Florida.
Garrett was raised in Texas, but happily admits he’s still learning about Fort Worth. He just recently saw his first Cowboys of Color Rodeo.
Garrett: “Honestly, and people may laugh at me for this, in Houston, when we went to the rodeo, we went to the concerts at night, you know. And so, that was my actual first time going to see the rodeo-rodeo, where they, you know, rode the horses and did the tricks, and it was exciting. People were on their feet and clapping, and I thought we have to bottle some of this energy.”
Garrett is determined to maintain the tradition of creating new works, established by Jubilee’s founder, the late Rudy Eastman Garrett’s already busy commissioning a new musical – about cowboys of color — to be called Black Spurs.
Directed by Phyllis Cicero, The African Company Presents Richard III, is one of Jubilee’s strongest recent efforts, a fascinating drama that pivots on both American history and Shakespearean theater. In New York, the African Company has become enough of an attraction that they need to provide a separate section in their nightclub for white theatergoers (who are both fascinated and mocking). But the company’s attempt to stage Shakespeare’s tragedy runs into serious trouble: A white theater producer, Stephen Price (Bob Allen) has coincidentally booked the British star, Junius Brutus Booth (father of Edwin and John Wilkes), to make his New York debut playing the same drama at the Park Theatre.
Both Spivey and Major Attaway (above) deliver standout performances. Attaway is utterly at ease and charming as a member of the company, a former Jamaican slave who provides his fellow actors good cheer and island wisdom — he’s part Falstaff, part Yoda. As Hewlett, the would-be stage star, Spivey is driven and defiant but also flirtatious and clueless when it comes to his younger co-star, Ann, played by T. K. Bell. Bell is actually a little old for the role — at times, Ann is little more than a headstrong adolescent — but Bell brings a flashing, captivating presence to the role. And May Allen is perfect as an older, shrewder actress.
The play does have some artificial-feeling dialogue, and the production has its serious weak points. Neither Bob Allen as the Broadway producer nor Martin Olsen as a young Irish constable present much of a real threat to the African-Americans, Allen because he mostly just blusters loudly and Olsen because he looks as though he’s all of 12 years old. It doesn’t help that the black nightclub manager-producer, William Henry Brown, is bold, tough and smart, but he’s played by Charles Jimerson as mostly just an affable character. Consequently, a lot of tension between the clashing forces is missing here. We should fear, by the end, that the black performers are truly risking their lives — for what some of them feel is little more than play-acting.
But The African Company isn’t simply a historical play, a dramatization of an interesting, minor face-off in America’s long racial struggle. It presents the theater itself as a public platform where causes are thrashed out, as a translator between people, even as a form of magic that brings characters to life and brings people together. Attaway’s Jamaican character was insultingly named Papa Shakespeare by his owner, but he took the name proudly. And towards the end, he is the African Company’s herald: He announces their show.
Attaway [in a thick island accent]: “And now all de characters will become real, all gonna breathe air [inhales and exhales] and live as you do. See ‘em now, yeah! Ladies and gentlemen! De African Company presents De Tragedy of King Richard Three by my brudder, William Shakespeare. Act one, scene – one.”
Garrett says he understands this embrace, this spirit of the stage, deeply: “As a child, for me, it was a place to belong. When a lot of chaos was going on around, it was a place that I could be still and accepted and appreciated. It gave me a future. And so I do often say, it saved my life. And I think it saves lives.
“Hearing somebody else go through what we are going through, it’s almost like a touch on the shoulder that says, ‘Hey, I’m with you through this.’”