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The Black Rep opens its season with the story of America’s first Black playwright

The Black Rep is shining a light on William Henry Brown, a Black thespian who 200 years ago founded the African Company theater in New York City. Brown, a free Black man from the West Indies who produced Shakespearean plays, hired James Hewlett, Ira Aldridge and other Black actors. The theater became a mainstay for Black audiences and eventually some white audiences too, though a white theater owner conspired to shut it down.

Brown’s history and accomplishments are the focus of “The African Company Presents Richard III” by playwright Carlyle Brown. The production documents Brown’s journey as founder of the African Company and documents the racism and prejudices he faced among white theater owners in New York City.

The show opens the Rep’s 46th season today. St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis spoke with director and Black Rep founder Ron Himes about the play, Brown’s history and how Brown’s experiences resonated to the founding of the Black Rep.

Chad Davis: You first performed this in 2000, so you had known about the history of this before then. So when you had learned that there was going to be a play, what were your immediate thoughts?

Ron Himes: Other theaters had done it, and I really was excited to do it. A lot of the work we do is about filling in blanks in history, telling stories that have been omitted from history, telling stories that fill the void in the American Theater, when in terms of the contributions of Black Americans.

Davis: Describe the play and the real-life basis behind this.

Himes: The African Company, which was founded in 1821 by William Henry Brown in New York City, the company primarily produced works of Shakespeare. The African Company had become very, very popular, of course, it was selling out to Black people at the time, but it had become so popular to white people that William Brown had built a partition in the back of the theater, so that whites could sit behind the partition to see the work of the African Company. I think initially, you know, the white folks came to sort of see what the novelty was and to make fun of it. But then ultimately, there were those who began to enjoy and appreciate the work. This also added to Stephen Price not wanting the competition and feeling that he was losing customers to the African Company. And so he has a conversation with the constables and gets them to close down the African Company.

Davis: What happened to William Brown after this period?

Himes: We don't know. I mean, we sort of lose William Henry Brown. But we know that William Henry Brown’s theater and James Hewlett’s work and performances at that theater heavily influenced Ira Aldridge. So we lose them in history, but we gained the fruit of their labor in the accomplishments of Ira Aldridge. Ira Aldridge is still considered by many to be one of the great Shakespearean tragedians of all time.

Davis: How has your directing of this play changed and differentiated from when you first performed it to now?

Himes: In 2000 I actually acted in the production. I played William Brown, and in this production I'm directing. So that's the first big major difference.

The approach to the play is informed by a little more dramaturgy, a little more research, a little more history.

Davis: Talk a little bit about how it was, you know, even embodying William Brown.

Himes: It was sort of me living my life. William Henry Brown is starting a Black theater, against all odds, against all challenges. Early on with the Black Rep that's how I felt. Starting a Black theater company with little support against all odds and obstacles and figuring out a way to be able to do the work that William Brown felt was important. Now, being able to do the work that I think is important for us to be able to do it and having the competition from white theaters that have more money, have more resources, that are bigger, that have been in existence longer, that have this sense of competitiveness, right? That doesn't allow them to collaborate, that doesn't allow them to embrace. That's what William Henry Brown had to deal with. In many ways, I've had to deal with that. But then on the other hand, I've had supporters, I've had people who worked with the Black Rep in our early years.

Davis: It's 2020, 22 years after you all first did the play, and then pretty much 200 years after this incident happened in the first place. So does this story still feel relevant today? And does it resonate still today?

Himes: I think that audiences should really embrace it because the reality is, most audience members that come to see this play won't know this, they still won't know this history, they still will hopefully be amazed that there was a Black theater company in New York City in 1821.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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