L. Peter Callender and African-American Shakespeare Company rise to rightful throne with ‘Richard III’

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Any latecomers to “Richard III” at the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco were privy to a small treat. As they waited in the wings, they may have witnessed L. Peter Callender, our great Richard III, burrowing past, making his way to the stage. And as he did so, he remained in character, even while on standby offstage.

Bay Area theater fanatics may already know Callender as something of a tour de force among local stage actors and directors, so it seems only fitting for him to take up the mantle of such an iconic yet challenging role at the African-American Shakespeare Company, for which he serves as the artistic director.

As Richard III, Callender cut a commanding figure, even while sporting the character’s trademark limp and hunchback. The Taube Atrium Theater is not necessarily one that’s conducive to a stage play — as mentioned, the actors’ entryways and exists intersect with the public walkways — but Callender briskly paced along the elevated black panel, his dominance over the space unquestionable. The role, however, is difficult not only from a physical perspective but also from a verbal one. Much of the show’s thematic content rests on the power of words in addition to violent acts, requiring Callender to weave his way in and out of Richard’s manipulative rhetoric as though such clever lies were common conversation.

The story of Richard III’s ascension to the throne of England is one of Shakespeare’s longest works, second only to “Hamlet.” With this in mind, director Kirsten Brandt has made significant cuts to keep the run time at 2 hours and 30 minutes. Not all of these cuts make for crisp transitions, and the play’s exhaustive length may warrant even additional trimming. The pace seems to drag most in the scenes leading up to the final battle, with extensive back-and-forth scheming intended to lay the groundwork for an end we all know is coming.

Yet where “Richard III” stands apart from some of its more dour counterparts is in its comedic elements. The show overflows with dramatic irony, clever puns and opportunities to toy with timing — all of which, thankfully, the African-American Shakespeare Company deftly executed. These moments give the text room to breathe and prevent the pace from being slowed by somber moment after somber moment.

Here, Callender is supported by an exceptional group of actors, their performances also lending the tragedy its requisite gravitas. In particular, passionate performances from the show’s ladies, including Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as the Duchess of Buckingham and Beli Sullivan as Queen Margaret, gave way to impressive verbal sparring and powerful monologues. The vast majority of the actors in the show are Black, true to the African-American Shakespeare Company’s goal to provide a place for actors of color and visibility for diverse audiences.

This detail distinguishes this production from other theatrical performances circulating in the Bay Area, and it is perhaps the most important aspect of all. For once, the audience that had assembled was not one dominated solely by aging white folks but included a far more diverse collection of age and racial groups. For quite some time, theaters have been struggling to attract new audiences so as to ensure live theater’s long-term sustainability, but they so far have failed to do so.

The challenge of attracting more diverse audiences can be exacerbated by performing a work from Shakespeare, whose language, while beautiful, can suffer from a perception of elitism and inaccessibility. But when Richard high-fives Lady Buckingham while “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” scores his coronation, we realize that these barriers can be lifted, both with creativity and with a cast that reflects the diversity that should constitute contemporary theater attendance.

The audience composition assembled by the African-American Shakespeare Company resoundingly demonstrates one thing — if theater companies want to attract more youths and people of color, their works must diversify as well. In this recognition, “Richard III” claims its greatest victory.

“Richard III” runs through July 29 at the Taube Atrium Theater.

Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].