Giving Shakespeare a racial twist in Winona
When BIPOC theater professionals called out white American theater, the Great River Shakespeare Festival listened.
WINONA, Minn. — For actor William Sturdivant, imagining a world where violence is visited on Black actors for daring to perform Shakespeare isn’t much of a stretch.
Sturdivant, one of the stars of the Great River Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The African Company Presents Richard III,” still sees boundaries in an art and profession that is supposed to have no limits.
“When you’re emerging as a professional Black actor, there can be a real frustration to the roles people of color are allowed to play,” Sturdivant said.
Black actors are often cast in supporting roles to white leads.
“There’s a feeling of being tokenized as opposed to that expanded mind where you can be King Lear, Richard III,” he said. “I want to be cast for my creative prowess.”
Set more than 150 years ago in New York City, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” is about a Black acting company that produces a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in direct competition with a white production of the play.
While it’s a familiar theme and story to depict Black first in the face of resistance and racism, the show and director Corey Allen don’t let the audience off the hook with a sanitized story and good feelings.
“Most important to me, I wanted to show the sacrifice of what these people did,” Allen said.
Allen said the show, written by Twin Cities playwright Carlyle Brown and published in 1994, gives directors the freedom to find effective ways to put it on. The show has only two or three stage directions, Allen said.
A fan of jazz music, Allen compared directing the show to riffing on a theme but with a goal.
“I want the audience to meet these humans, love, understand them,” he said, adding he hopes the audience carries that empathy with them for other people after the show.
Directing this show was a chance to show audiences the cost those Black creatives paid, he added. Often, stories of the Black pioneers tend to be sanitized but they have a familiar outcome.
“Inevitably, they meet some violence,” he said. “Regularly, it’s police violence and historically it’s happened over and over and over again.”
Doing that also means putting the actors in uncomfortable moments.
“You can definitely feel the temperature in the room change for some of those scenes,” said actor Ashley Bowen.
Having a Black director and support crew makes the tense moments more comfortable, actors said. Five of the seven actors in the production are people of color. That most of the crew supporting the cast are too isn’t a coincidence.
It’s part of a deliberate plan GRSF has implemented to improve its practices to provide more opportunities and be a safer space for theater professionals, audiences, and students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The plan was drafted in response to BIPOC theater artists’ statement of grievances, "We See You White American Theater, " issued in 2020.
Allen said without the actors feeling respected and safe, putting on this show wouldn’t have its intended effect.
Bowen said she feels safe enough to get immersed in parts of the show, which enhances her performance. The cast and audience feel a shift in the show when Act II begins.
“The energy in the room is crazy,” Bowen said. “Being in those scenes, I don’t feel like an actor, I feel like I’m back in time, I feel like I’m very much in the moment.”
Sturdivent said he also feels that intensity during the performance.
“You can’t think, you just have to be with it and be a witness,” he said. “Which is what theater is supposed to do.”
“The African Company Presents 'Richard III” runs through July.
If you go
What: The Great River Shakespeare Festival presents “The African Company Presents 'Richard III.'”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16; Friday, July 22; Wednesday July 27; 3 p.m., Sunday, July 24; 1 p.m., Saturday July 30.
Where: 121 E 3rd St., Winona.