Macbeth in Harlem: Black Theater in America from the Beginning to Raisin in the Sun

Macbeth in Harlem: Black Theater in America from the Beginning to Raisin in the Sun, (Rutgers University Press, 246 pages) is an exercise in frustration, for two reasons.
Clifford Mason’s survey of the first century and a half of Black Theater in America highlights some remarkable history, such as The African Grove Theatre. It was founded in Greenwich Village way back in 1821 by West Indian-born black man William Alexander Brown, who is credited with having written the first play by a black writer produced in America (“The Drama of King Shotaway,” based on an insurrection by black Caribbeans against the British in 1795 on the island of St. Vincent.) The all-black casts of the theater made Shakespearean tragedies – “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Richard III” – the heart of their repertoire, and included the young Ira Aldridge, who became one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century.
But the African Grove Theatre lasted only two or three years – largely because, Mason writes, its rival white theater owners sent hooligans and then the police to destroy it. And Aldridge left the U.S. in 1824, never to return, establishing his reputation over more than four decades in major cities throughout Europe.
After the African Grove Theater came (as Mason titles his next chapter), “the long night of the nineteenth century,” with minstrel shows and “coon shows” co-opting African American culture while degrading African American people. There were a few exceptions, such as black playwright William Wells Brown’s drama “The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom,” published in 1858, but it was eclipsed by theatrical adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Theatrical versions of Stowe’s novel ran continuously for ninety years, and let many white audiences see for the first time the evils of slavery — “but only within the safe confines of theater. The Black in public and private life received very little positive fallout from all of the national weeping over terrible Simon Legree ‘whupping’ poor ole Uncle Tom…”
Even in the twentieth century, Mason pairs every step forward with a couple of steps back.
Bert Williams, “the greatest Black entertainer of the period between 1890 and the Jazz Age”, and his partner, George Walker, produced four full-fledged musicals on Broadway between 1901 and 1908, but they rarely share billing with George M. Cohan, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin as pioneers of the Broadway musical.
The 1920s ushered in a series of hit Broadway musicals by black theater artists. But, Mason quotes one of the most prominent, Eubie Blake, as having said “Once the white boys learned how to write the jazz syncopation, nobody used us anymore.”
The book’s title alludes to the 1936 production of “Macbeth” directed by 20-year-old Orson Welles with an all-black cast, whose opening night was attended by such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
But most of the contemporary critics were negative and condescending. And black casts in classical plays were far less usual than such (to us) odd and offensive productions  as “Scarlet Sister Mary,” by white playwright Daniel Reed, which ran at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore theater in 1930, starring Ethel Barrymore herself. She was in blackface, along with the rest of the cast, portraying Gullah Negroes.
”Just imagine how much richer our culture would be if we allowed serious Black theater to flourish the way we’ve allowed the singing and dancing and comedy to flourish,” Mason writes, adding that modern basketball and football would not be recognizable without “the Black style of playing.”
The 1936 “Macbeth” was produced by the Federal Theatre Project, a federally-funded program that in its four years of existence spurred what Mason considers some of the best black theater in America. Indeed, he believes, nothing has matched it in the eighty years since: “The death of FTP and the era, short-lived though it was, that made fighting for social justice de rigueur,” he writes, “was also the end of a time when the stage served as a forum for the best in us.”
He’s certainly not hugely impressed with “A Raisin in the Sun,” to which he devotes less than two pages of text near the end of his book, although it’s included in his title. “Raisin is a nice little play that gives some hope to the ones who still need help in feeling equal to the problems that being Black in America bring. And the family does beat with a single heart in a way that makes their suffering affecting. These are people who neither offend nor threaten …”

Mason is a theater artist, critic and the author previously of “The African-American Bookshelf: 50 Must Reads from Before the Civil War Through Today.”  It takes no great insight to see that he is frustrated with the state of American theater, and its history, and the history of black people in America; he communicates that frustration on nearly every page.

That is one reason why “Macbeth in Harlem,” while a timely book, is not an especially happy read.  Mason spends much space inveighing against the endless manifestations of racism not just in the American theater but in America as a whole. Some of his commentary is important; some observations spot-on. But too many of these passages come off as speechifying, and feel repetitive. I wish he had spent more time and space providing clear, concrete information.  I found myself several times scurrying off to Google to clear up a confusing passage in the book or to provide more context for a vague one.  (One odd example: Some twenty pages after Mason tells us that William Alexander Brown was the first black author of a play in America, “The Drama of King Shotaway,” in 1823, Mason seems to say that William Wells Brown was the first black American playwright, writing “The Escape, or A Leap for Freedom” in 1858.  And then in that same paragraph Mason attributes the authorship of “The Drama of King Shotaway” to William Henry Brown.)

The looseness extends to the prose.  I might have been amused by his use of  “neegrow” (which he helpfully explains in a footnote is a “slang term for negro, often used as satire”) if he didn’t repeat it dozens of times, very seldom in any evident satirical context.

Little of this matters whenever Mason focuses in relative depth on the story of a specific theater artist (such as Ira Aldridge or Paul Robeson) or a work of theater (such as “The Mulatto,” by Langston Hughes, the debut Broadway play in 1935 by the writer whose poem gave Lorraine Hansberry the title of  “Raisin in the Sun”; or Orson Welles’ mounting of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” in 1941.)

The publication date for “Macbeth in Harlem” is June, 2020 – this month – but much of it feels as if it were written many years ago, and not just because the account stops in the 1950s. (In the acknowledgements page, Mason tells us he started the book in the late 1980s, and recently “got a contract from Rutgers University Press to resurrect” it.) To pick an insignificant example: Mason devotes several pages to the 1921 Eubie Blake/ Noble Sissel Broadway hit musical “Shuffle Along” without mentioning George C. Wolfe’s 2016 Broadway remake of it.

It’s bracing to read this passage among his complaints about 21st century theater:

“Why can a white policeman shoot a Black man in the back eight times and still have a huge part of the citizenship support him? On the theatrical stage, that would seem to be great theater. ..” He’s asking: why isn’t this depicted on the stage? But isn’t it?

But then there’s this:

“….consider that between August 2016 and May 2018, three hundred and seventy-eight Black Americans were killed by white policemen. And there has not been one Black artist to say “I accuse” the way [Paul] Robeson did. Things are different? We’re a better nation than we were? We’ve elected a Black president. Then why does the slaughter continue unabated generation after generation? “

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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