With “The Top of Bravery,” it’s clear from the moment you step into the haze-filled lobby that the production’s goal is to transport you back in time.
The destination is one seldom explored these days — that of blackface and its role in entertaining American audiences of the past.
Instead of focusing on the white performers who often donned makeup to mock black people, this work gives attention to Bert Williams, the first black actor to play a leading role on a Broadway stage. He was one of the most popular comedians of the vaudeville, but performed in burnt-cork blackface to do so.
In lesser hands, this might be a recipe for disaster, but as performed by Jeremy V. Morris and directed by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, it’s a smart, edgy and ultimately devastating exploration of a groundbreaking performer and the indignities he endured.
Originally written and performed by Morris as a one-man show, he’s expanded the work into a full-fledged play with three other performers. In Richmond it’s taken on as a joint production by Quill Theatre and the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia.
We see Williams’ beginnings as a comedian, getting involved with traveling minstrel shows on the West Coast and making multiple runs at Broadway with his stage partner, George Walker (Keydron Dunn), before finding success with their show “Two Real Coons.”
Williams and Walker also find love along the way with fellow performers Lottie Williams (Katrinah Carol Lewis) and Aida Overton Walker (Jasmine Eileen Coles). The ensemble performs well together, especially with E. Gaynell Sherrod’s incredibly physical choreography.
Morris is spellbinding as the put-upon lead, and Dunn is charismatic as his partner, though on opening night he struggles with his lines. As their romantic partners, Lewis and Coles hold their own, though Cora Delbridge’s period-appropriate costumes could use some differentiation between Lewis’ two major roles. Dennis Williams’ set emphasizes the transient nature of the performers’ lives, with two banners bookending the stage to approximate a vaudeville advertisement.
As with many new works, it runs into some second-act trouble, and could use an extension of the secondary characters’ stories before leaving Williams on his own at the show’s close. But by and large, “Bravery” is successful in delving unapologetically into the history of this performer.
The effect sometimes is cringe-inducing, but always intentional and important. It treats Williams with dignity while making the point that racial progress in its time may be viewed awkwardly later.
Perhaps most intriguing is decision to focus on Williams at all, a performer who died before nearly everyone living was born and of whom few recordings exist. In its incisive and deliberate tackling of racial imagery that might otherwise be plainly offensive, this show soars above any questions of its appropriateness. “Bravery” values its audience’s intelligence. It’s a perfect example of how to explore problematic symbols of the past without embracing them. S
Quill Theatre and African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia’s “The Top of Bravery” runs through Feb. 5 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. For information, visit quilltheatre.org or call 340-0115.