Kelly’s play choice examines race
By Kunyi Li
Published on Monday, May 21, 2012
Internationally renowned actor and scholar Baron Kelly stirred up campus discourse on racial identity with his production of Carlyle Brown’s “The African Company Presents Richard III” in Bentley Theater over the weekend.
Kelly was brought to campus last fall by VOICES, the Dartmouth theater visiting artist program, which aims to present dramatic works that are relevant to Dartmouth’s minority communities by inviting accomplished theater artists to campus, according to the theater department’s website.
A three-time Fulbright Scholar, Kelly studied at the London Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has produced and acted in productions of theater, film and television around the world. While in Europe, he researched African-American theater, particularly the prominent 18th-century American black actor Ira Aldridge, Kelly said. In a list of plays submitted by Kelly, the VOICE program decided on “The African Company Presents Richard III,” which discusses the challenge of racial identity, he said.
“It would be a vehicle in creating a lot of interesting discussions, especially considering the internationalization of African-Americans on stage,” Kelly said.
Set in 1820 inManhattan, still marred by racial segregation, Brown’s play recounts the true story of an African-American theater troupe’s struggle to bring their own production of Shakespeare’s villainous hunchbacked monarch Richard III on stage. It traces the journey of William Henry Brown, played by Joshua Echebiri ’14, and his troupe of actors grappling against not only a rival white theater company performing the same play but also the racial oppression of the era.
The play began with the entrance of Stephen Price, played by Stewart Towle ’12, the rotund owner of the white-owned Park Theater Company, presenting a clamoring monologue and strutting through the audience. After Towle’s denouncement of the black theater company’s potential rivalry as a travesty, the curtains uncovered a set framed by two opposing shelves scattered with boxes and garment scraps. In the recess of the center of the stage, horizontally laid ropes tied as nooses cut through a lit blue background, recalling the distant yet piercing memories of lynching and racial oppression.
The set was designed by Gabriel Rodriguez ’13 with Kelly’s assistance, Kelly said.
“The original idea for the set that I had with [Rodriguez] was the inside empty hole of a slave ship, which developed into the shelf,” Kelly said. “The ropes I originally wanted to have as chains — the more people became constrained by outer society, the ropes became more prevalent.”
The play, which traces the bitter battle between the two theater companies, reflects the dire need to create an authentic voice for American blacks in the age of slavery. The three male actors of the troupe, played by Echebiri, Chris Holland ’11 and Ryan Williams-French ’12, delivered numerous lyrical speeches against the obstacles they encountered while producing a black interpretation of “Richard III” in a society ruled unconditionally by whites.
The two female actresses, played by Samantha Azinge ’12 and Bree-Ana Craine ’13, also delivered powerful lines questioning shifting traditions and gender roles.
Kelly said he was enthusiastic to work with undergraduate actors, many of who were not theater majors. Despite their relative lack of professional acting experience, Kelly said that the actors quickly adapted to the rigor demanded by his production. Donning the vibrant and richly evocative garments designed by costume designer Emily Adams ’13, they put on a convincing show that left the audience not only in awe but also in contemplation.
“I had a very high bar that they had to come up to, and without a question they were very hard-working.” Kelly said. “They definitely had risen to the occasion and I was very pleased with that.”
Audiences, ranging from students and faculty to community members, were overwhelmingly pleased by Kelly’s production and the students’ performance.
“The acting was particularly strong — more genuine and profound than I expect from college students,” women’s and gender studies professor Renee Bergland said in an email to The Dartmouth. “They didn’t seem to be coasting on their natural talent — they were thoroughly committed. It was moving.”
Kelly will remain on campus until the end of July. He will be assisting and directing plays at the Frost and Dodd Play Festival at the College.