200 Years Ago: The First Black American Theatre Company

200 years ago today: surprisingly, wonderfully, America’s first black theatre company. People, even folks who know their theatre history, could be forgiven for guessing, oh, the 1960s, the 1920s, the 1890s. I knew of the existence of the African Grove Theatre, but without a book in front of me, I might have guessed the 1830s. New York City had a substantial community of free black people even at that early date. William Alexander Brown (sometimes rendered as William Henry Brown), originally from the West Indies, had worked on ships. His travels had taken him to England, where he had the opportunity to see lots of theatre firsthand, which is more than many Americans had done at that early date. He originally began putting on presentations at his house and in his yard in Lower Manhattan, featuring theatre, music, poetry readings, and the like. The primary intended audience was the African American community, but whites would attend as well (sometimes rowdy and unruly ones). When local authorities shut it down, he strarted the African Theatre in a dedicated theatre building. Richard III, was it first production, opening September 17, 1821. In addition to Shakespeare productions the company also presented Brown’s original plays, as well as ballets and operas. Company members included James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge. The company seems to have disbanded in early 1824, due to a combination of neighbor complaints and undercapitalization. Not until the post-Civil War Era would there be further attempts to make a black theatre in New York.

For much more, see Alycee Bird’s piece in the New York Times.