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It’s the early 1800s and the African Grove Theatre Troupe, which is all African-American, is about to stage Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in New York City. The cast, director and producers have worked countless hours to make this production as good as possible. But then word spreads that an all-white troupe has just hired a big name star in order to present its version of the classic play nearby.

How do the African-American artists deal with this setback about 40 years before the Civil War? The answer is with tremendous emotion and poetry, but that’s only part of the story.

A play called “The African Company Presents: Richard III” will show seven times at Queens Theatre from Friday, Jan. 31, until Sunday, Feb. 9.

Written by Carlyle Brown in 1994, this powerful drama is inspired by historical facts. William Henry Brown, a former West Indies steamship steward, founded the country’s first African-American resident theater group in Manhattan in 1816. He faced all kinds of harassment from white hoodlums, law enforcement officials and Stephen Price, owner the nearby, all-white Park Theater. It eventually closed in 1824.

In 1821, Brown’s production of “Richard III,” an historical play about an English king’s bloody rise to power and short reign that Shakespeare wrote around 1593, ran at the same time as a version by the Park Theater that starred Junius Brutus Booth, a famous English stage actor who went on to father John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Tickets are $20. The show times are Jan. 31, Feb. 1, Feb. 6, Feb. 7, and Feb. 8 at 7:30 pm and Feb. 2 and Feb. 9 at 4 pm.

This presentation of “The African Company Presents: Richard III” is produced by Titan Theatre Company, which offers it as a play-within-a-play as the heartbroken actors process their feelings about everything from the racism of the era to art to finding acceptance with white audiences.

These are actors playing actors. So the audience can expect great monologues, emotional human interactions and intra-cast romance. The characters are unapologetically African-American, while they defy long-held notions that intellectualism, culture, and elevated language belonged solely to white people at the time.

Titan is a 10-year-old, Queens-based nonprofit that is currently in residency at Queens Theatre. This production features a mix of Titan regulars and newcomers. The director is Marcus Denard Johnson, who has acted in many Titan plays.

Queens Theatre is located at 14 United Nations Ave. S. in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. There’s a public parking lot nearby and a free shuttle runs from the 7 line’s Mets-Willets Point station before and after the shows.

Images: Lloyd Mulvey

 

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