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African-American drama of Shakespeare's hunchback king

PUBLISHED: 16:15 18 March 2009 | UPDATED: 17:26 16 August 2010

HISTORICAL:Caryle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III.

HISTORICAL:Caryle Brown's The African Company Presents Richard III.

THERE S probably a very good story waiting to be told about a black theatre group performing Richard III in early 19th century New York -

THERE'S probably a very good story waiting to be told about a black theatre group performing Richard III in early 19th century New York - but I'm not convinced that the clumsily titled The African Company Presents Richard III is it, writes Mark Campbell.

At first I thought I was coming to see an African-American take on Shakespeare's famous tragedy. This could have been fascinating.

But actually the evening at Greenwich Theatre turned out to be a rather less engaging adaptation of a real-life historical event.

Not only did Billy Brown's African Company challenge the social conventions of middle class New York in 1821 (well before the abolition of slavery) but it also competed directly with a prestigious white production in the same city.

Act One was rather unfocused. I wasn't clear whether I was watching a folksy soap opera or a polemic against racism.

Things came together in Act Two, although it still felt as if Caryle Brown's script wasn't quite sure of its target audience.

Its humour was certainly broader than I would have liked, and the clash between Brown (Chris Tummings) and Price (Maxwell Hutcheon), proprietor of the other Richard III , seemed rather undramatic.

Nevertheless, there were some likeable performances from the small but enthusiastic Collective Artistes cast.

Shango Baku was charisma personified as the eccentric Papa Shakespeare, striding around the stage in a variety of colourful costumes. Strong too were Antonia Kemi Coker, Chris Tummings and Krystle Hylton.

But the exceptionally tall Charlie Folorunsho seemed altogether too rigid in the part of Richard III actor James Hewlett.

Maxwell Hutcheon was the theatre manager whose beautiful voice and velvet diction hinted at a cunningly hidden deviousness. Simon Ryerson filled the role of comic Irish-American policeman to perfection. Collective Artistes' aim, according to the programme, is to produce drama that is "eclectic, non-compartmental and humanely indexed". No idea what that means, but I thought the drumming at the end was marvellous.

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