Closing weekend for powerful and timely ‘Richard III’ from African-American Shakes

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Richard (L. Peter Callender) speaks with his brother George, Duke of Clarence (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) in William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” running through this weekend in San Francisco. (Lance Huntley photo)

Director Kirsten Brandt is a few days away from closing her first show with the African-American Shakespeare Company, a production of the vicious classic “Richard III.” And to hear the energy in her voice when speaking about the show and working with one of the company’s founders, L. Peter Callender, you can hear that taking on this show was a blast.

The show, which runs two final performances this weekend, sees Callender in the title role. He is a performer with great knowledge of the William Shakespeare canon, and for Brandt, it represented the perfect scenario for collaboration.

“We walk into rehearsal and ask, what about this and what about that? We’re like kids – it’s so exciting to find new morsels in the text. When both people are excited about the discovery, it makes the process joyous and collaborative.”

The story of this play is the story of much of Shakespeare’s plays on dictatorial rulers. We see the deformed Richard wholly unsatisfied with his status at the conclusion of the civil war between the royal families of Lancaster and the victorious Yorks. While others celebrate the triumph with wine, women and song, Richard enjoys none of that, bemoaning the fact that dogs bark at him because of his ugliness.

This rage within him fuels his newfound plans to take over the crown, and destroy anything in his path.

Richard is one of the greatest villains in all of Shakespeare, utilizing a very unique tactic – a direct relationship with the audience. It all begins with the first address, the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech. It draws them into his world, and lays out the exact way in which he will proceed to usurp power. For Brandt, the reasons for this tactic are genius.

“In that first monologue, he says, ‘Hi, this is my story,’ and that makes you a co-conspirator,” said Brandt. “He lays some plots, and you’re kind of seduced by him. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, as the play progresses, Richard pulls away as he gets paranoid.”

One of the greatest scenes in the play takes place between the noblewoman Lady Anne and Richard. As she spits in his face, a man responsible for the death of her husband, she is slowly brought into his web of love and deceit, agreeing to marry him. He quickly returns to an audience who has watched it all unfold, stating,
“Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?”

For Brandt, seeing the women in the play being used as pawns seems to foreshadow the #MeToo movement.

“We watch everything done in the scene with Anne, and he’s catching her in an emotional state. She’s grieving, and he separates her from the only two guys in the room and he manipulates her.”

In our current presidential administration, one of the great criticisms that often comes from President Donald Trump has to do with loyalty. He is not one to shy away from his frustration for anyone who does not pledge blind loyalty to his mission. And with that fear of disappearing loyalty comes a good chance that paranoia is sure to follow. Queen Margaret, whose family has been ravaged by Richard, ultimately gives him too much to handle.

“Margaret curses him and he becomes paranoid,” said Brandt. “Her curses come true, and his conscience catches up to him. At that moment, he stops talking to us, and doesn’t even trust us anymore.”

One of the reasons why Shakespeare has sustained for well over 400 years is that there is always a new discovery based on so many factors – age, culture and modern society, to name a few. For Brandt, who has directed this play before and has directed a lot of Shakespeare over the years, it’s what makes him so alive and fresh.

“Every time I approach a Shakespeare play, something new is revealed. What’s going to present itself to me, right now, in 2018, in San Francisco? In that regard, it’s exciting.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

African-American Shakespeare Company presents “Richard III”
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kirsten Brandt
Saturday, July 28th – 8:00 pm
Sunday, July 29th – 3:00 pm
Taube Atrium Theatre
401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $25 – $30
For tickets, visit https://www.african-americanshakes.org/

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