Hidden no more!
For filmmaker Kamilla Blanche, truth telling means everything. Since starting her career in the arts as a professional actress at the age of 14, Blanche has blazed a trail as one of the original resident actors at the Keskidee Theatre, London’s first Black British theatre company. She went on to achieve a 20 plus year career in theatre, television and film – and as a filmmaker today – remains committed to telling Black narrative driven stories.
“In the late 70s, 80s, and 90s, we were first generation Black British actors and were kicking down the walls of stereotypes in the arts,” Blanche told Because of Them We Can. “Ira Aldridge, who was the first professional Black actor to play Othello on the London Stage in 1826, started with the African Company at the age of 14. If I had known about the African Company back then, it would have changed everything for me as a young Black actress.”
It wasn’t until years later that Blanche learned about the African Company, also recognized as the first Black theatre company in the United States. In a conversation over dinner one night with friend and theatre scholar Margit Edwards, Blanche was introduced to the incredible legacy of the African Company’s founder William Alexander Brown and its creative director James Hewlett. Like Blanche’s parents, both hailed from the Caribbean. For Blanche, the connection to the story went even deeper as she started her acting career at London’s first Black theatre company at the same age that Alridge launched his professional acting career at the nation’s first Black theatre company. It’s almost as if history found her.
The African Company was established in 1821 in Greenwich Village, New York, where the cast mostly performed Shakespearean plays to mixed race audiences. Indentured and formerly enslaved African Americans were hired as actors, directors, producers and playwrights. When the company decided to perform Shakespeare’s Richard III on the same night as the Park Theatre, an all-white theatre company located right next door, they were met with racially motivated conflict. The Park Theatre, who was unable to handle the competition, not only attempted to interrupt the African Company’s performance, but went as far as setting the African Company on fire, burning it to the ground in 1823.
“I knew in my heart that I had a personal connection to this story and could tell it honestly, but I did not want to just make the film, but also extend their legacy with designations like a plaque next to their original location in the Village, and have their history formerly archived into an institution,” Blanche explained. “It is a huge responsibility, but I knew people would learn about them and want to support this project.”
It's been five years since Blanche has started her journey to preserve the history of the African Company, writing both the screenplay for “2 Richards!” and the documentary synopsis. It is important to Blanche to control the true narrative of the African Company, and in doing so, she and her executive producer Olga Garay English have enlisted the help of researchers, historians and fiscal sponsor Film Independent.
“Crowdfunding this project will be integral in changing history,” Blanche explained. “It will allow us to give The African Company’s history back to the community it belongs to.”
Along with their fiscal sponsor, the “2 Richards!” team is also launching a new crowdfunding campaign to help bring the documentary into fruition and provide scholarships to film and theatre arts students of color. The project includes the legendary Clarke Peters, who is the narrator of the film, Gail Ann Dorsey, who created the film’s original score, and most recently added, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman and Emmy-nominated producer Lori McCreary, both serving as executive producers.
Blanche wants future Black filmmakers to know that “it's your unique perspective that makes you a good storyteller.” Her path to becoming one herself was inspired by Rufus Collins, the director of the Keskidee Theatre.
“He was from New York and a tall beautiful, strong, and proud openly gay Black man in the 1970s. Rufus was very well respected in the world of international theatre and was a member of the "Living Theatre” in the 1960s, a very progressive experimental theatre company, established in New York in 1947,” Blanche shared. “I learned so much from him about my history, the theatre and about trust. I did not get the opportunity to thank him, so thank you Because of Them We Can for allowing me to do it here; unfortunately he is not with us anymore.”
To learn more about the “2 Richards! The African Company” project, please visit their website.