Remembering is critical to our future!
One of the first successful Black theaters in the nation debuted in New York City more than 200 years ago, The New York Times reports. The African Theater is considered the first Black theater company in the United States. It was founded by William Alexander Brown, a ship steward and free Black man born in the West Indies who purchased a house at 38 Thompson Street in Manhattan in 1816 to serve as a cultural hub for the community.
Brown filled the home with entertainment on Sundays, populated by Black New Yorkers looking to commune after church service. Brown set up his backyard for what would become known as the African Grove, where brandy and gin were served alongside cake and ice cream as fellowship steward John Hewlett sang for guests. Eventually, more performers joined, and Hewlett became the principal actor in what would be known as the African Theater. Two hundred years ago, on September 17, 1821, the company would open on a New York City stage with Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” played by a Black man in front of an all-Black audience.
The play was a hit, Hewlett took the show on the road, performing Shakespearean monologues all over the country. He is known as the first Black American Shakespearean actor. A younger member of the theater, Ira Aldridge, would also follow in those same footsteps, traveling internationally and making a career for himself around the globe as a Black Shakespearean actor. Though the African Theater only lasted two or three years, its performers and legacy transformed the landscape of American drama. Its history still echoes many of the conversations around race and the art form happening today.
Ira Aldridge in “Titus Andronicus.” Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress
The African Theater entertained hundreds of Black New Yorkers, premiering alongside operas and ballets. They staged plays like “Othello,” “Tom and Jerry; Or, Life in London,” “The Poor Soldier,” and “Obi; Or Three-Finger’d Jack,” charging attendees 25 cents or 50 cents for a better seat. Brown even wrote original plays for the theater, including “The Drama of King Shotaway,” a story about a Black Caribbean uprising which is thought to be the first play written by a Black author, though the text has been lost over the years. Those lost scripts and vague details, along with the sudden end, have made the African Theater somewhat of a mystery over the years. However, it existed, growing so much that white audiences began attending.
The company then became a rival production to white theaters, eventually being raided, harassed by police, and performers attacked. Despite Brown’s attempts to save it by changing the name, closing and reopening, the financial challenges were just too much. When the yellow fever epidemic engulfed New York in October 1822, Brown’s audience vanished. The theater decided to close, and Hewlett left a few months later. The last playbill for an African Theater production is dated June 1823. Though the history has been lost over the years and usurped by the overarching white narrative of American theater, people have long memories. Two modern plays have renewed attention to the legacy – “The African Company Presents Richard the Third” by Carlyle Brown and “Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti.
Harvey Young, a theater scholar and dean of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, spoke about the significance of Brown’s and the African Theater’s legacy, saying much of the history was lost due to the theater’s story being isolated from the rest of Black theater history.
“[With] Du Bois or Langston Hughes or Lorraine Hansberry, you can immediately see the baton not only passing but multiplying, and then impacting generations upon generations of people. It’s harder to trace the influence of William Brown,” Young said.
But Brown’s audience was significant, with scholars estimating that nearly 300 to 400 people could remember the history of the theater, which led to the survival of the legacy.
“It shows this kind of persistence of memory in the culture. Even though the theater itself doesn’t last, it definitely lingers in the memory of the city, in the memory of Black spectators, in the memory of the white spectators who either applauded it or who opposed it,” Heather S. Nathans, a theater professor at Tufts University said.
The integration of the audiences serves as a lesson for race and the arts today; many theaters still grapple with the disconnect of expectations different audiences face in Black theater spaces. While many Black spectators came to the African theater expecting Shakespearean-like art, white audiences often attended for the spectacle, looking for their stereotypical fantasies of Black art to be fulfilled. For them, true Black artistry that possessed intellectual depth and curiosity was dangerous, threatening the notions of Black people that shaped society and their laws. So often, white interest in Black theater spaces often shifted to resentment and a need to end it. It is this phenomenon that author Marvin McAllister speaks about in his book, “White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Colour: William Brown’s African and American Theater.”
“What William Brown was contending with, which subsequent Black leaders have contended with, is this real complex dichotomy – he is a Black artist that the theatrical landscape in New York in the early 1820s both wants and rejects. People want to see what the African Company is going to do…but at the same time, they want to reject or deny their ability to do certain things, like, for example, legitimate Shakespeare,” McAllister said.
Douglas Jones, English professor at Rutgers University and the author of “The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North,” agrees with McAllister’s assumptions.
“It was proving false claims of inherent Black inferiority. That is to say, if they could do these high-cultural forms, then the ways in which we are justifying slavery or Black second-class citizenship – that goes out the window,” Jones said.
It’s the same challenge he said contemporaries like Aleshea Harris, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Jeremy O. Harris face, although they tackle the issues with different strategies.
“Part of what I think they’re doing is trying to destroy or dismantle expectations for Black writers and Black performers. Part of that expectation is that they always have to be writing about race, for example, or they always have to be writing about some type of Black trauma or Black mourning,” Jones added.
It is this lasting relevance that makes the 200th anniversary of the African Theater so important. This year, the anniversary was commemorated on September 17 by the 2021 International Black Theater Summit. The ceremony took place on Black Theater Day, the same day Broadway made history, announcing their new fall lineup featuring seven new productions all by Black playwrights.
The legacy of the African Theater is a reminder of the permanence just a few short years of commitment to excellence in craft can have on the cultural zeitgeist and the ways that can inspire generations to come.
“There’s another narrative. Here’s the guy who creates a theater company, hits a challenge, tries again, hits a challenge, tries again, and then, in three years, gives up and leaves…But if you look at this moment…one month, three months of activity can really inspire folks for generations. And we’re talking about a person who just kept at it for three years. That’s significant,” Young said.
Thank you for your contribution, William Alexander Brown. Because of you, we can!
Drawing of James Hewlett in the role of “Richard III.” Photo Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University/Wiki Commons