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'The African Company' at OSF

In 1821 in New York City, free blacks formed a theater company called the African Company. The troupe had its start in a tea room founded by William Henry Brown, a black man who worked as a ship's steward and, sometime before 1821, had set up a tea room called the African Grove for blacks — white establishments would not admit them — on Thomas Street in Greenwich Village.

There, Brown presented music and dramatic exhibitions for black audiences.

Brown created the African Company, a troupe of black actors, and slated Shakespeare's "Richard III" as its first performance. The show was shut down by police. Brown moved it around until he landed in the Hampton Hotel.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Carlyle Brown's "The African Company Presents Richard III" will preview at 1:30 p.m. Friday, July 22, and open at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 23, in OSF's "Bowmer in the Park."

OSF is staging plays in repertory in the air-conditioned tent in Lithia Park while the Angus Bowmer Theatre is closed for repairs. The play is expected to move indoors to the Bowmer Aug. 2.

Seret Scott, who is directing the OSF production, says the trouble with the African Company's production is that it was staged next door to the famed Park Theatre, a white theater that was doing the same play.

"The African Company was asked to not do the play ... " says Scott. "They said no."

Scott says what attracted her to the play is its relevance for today.

"Who owns art of any kind, especially what we consider the classics?"

Scott says the African Company, although it was selling out its seats, was treated with contempt by the white theater, the press and the cops, none of whom believed uneducated blacks were capable of performing Shakespeare.

But Scott says the actors used the same basis as anyone else to enter the Shakespearean world: their own experience of living.

The OSF cast features Charles Robinson as Papa Shakespeare, Kevin Kenerly as James Hewlett and Peter Macon as William Henry Brown. Scenic design is by Richard L. Hay, with costumes by Shigeru Yaji.

Call 541-482-4331 or see www.osfashland.org to showtimes and tickets.

Constable-man (Mark Murphey) informs Papa Shakespeare (Charles Robinson) and William Henry Brown (Peter Macon) that their theatre has been closed. - Photo by Jenny Graham