Black Theater in New York Over Two Centuries

Theater created by Black New Yorkers goes back two centuries, as chronicled in the collections of the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, some items from which are posted below, in honor of Black History Month.

A flyer from the African Company, the first professional Black theater group in America, which was founded in 1820 and performed at the African Grove, at Bleecker and Mercer Streets in downtown Manhattan. 

The theater’s founder, William Alexander Brown, 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 theater also launched the career of Ira Aldridge, who was born a free African American in New York in 1807 and went on to become one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time — although, since the African Grove was short-lived, his career quickly shifted overseas. Over four decades, Aldridge toured widely and to great acclaim in Europe, (Adrian Lester portrayed him a decade ago in a play entitled “Red Velvet.“)

 William Wells Brown‘s ” The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom was the first known play by a Black playwright to be published in the United States, in 1858.

Bert Williams in 1911, the year he launched a successful solo career that included becoming the only Black performer cast year after year in the Ziegfeld Follies. Williams was, according to his friend W.C. Fields, “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.” Williams was probably the most popular African-American entertainer at the turn of the twentieth century, a man of many talents, and many firsts.He and his partner George Walker created four musicals on Broadway between 1901 and 1908, including “In Dahomey,” 1903-1904, Above, Hattie McIntosh, George Walker, Ada Overton Walker, Bert Williams, and Lottie Williams perform a cakewalk

Angelina Grimké, whose play Rachel, produced in 1916 and published in 1920, concerns a young woman who is so horrified by racism that she vows never to bring children into the world. It was one of the first plays written by a Black author about Black issues.

Charles Gilpin in the stage production The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill, 1920, a role that Paul Robeson would play in the movie adaptation. (Gilpin’s career is the subject of a recent movie, The Black Emperor of Broadway.)

A publicity still from “Shuffle Along,” a 1921 Broadway musical created by four Black men — it was composed by Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble ?Sissel and a book by the4 comedy duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles — and featuring an all-Black cast, including the Broadway debut of Paul Robeson, at age 23. ( George C. Wolfe remade the musical on Broadway in 2016 )

Paul Robeson in the 1924 Broadway production of “All God’s Chilun Got Wings” by Eugene O’Neill, and in the title role of “Othello,” in 1943

Langston Hughes’ play “Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South, produced on Broadway in 1935, tells the story of a mixed-race boy’s self-acceptance after his white father rejects him.

The Harlem Renaissance was a fertile time for Black theater, climaxing in the dozens of productions by the “Negro Unit” of the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930’s.

Theater during the Black Lives Matter explosion in 2020, available then (since in-person theater was closed) only online.

Plays by Black playwrights in the 2022-2023 Broadway season, clockwise from top left: “Topdog/Underdog,” the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning play; “The Piano Lesson,” the revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play; “Ain’t No Mo’,” by Jordan E Cooper, marking the playwright’s Broadway debut at age 27; “Ohio State Murders” by Adrienne Kennedy, marking the playwright’s Broadway debut at age 91, in the James Earl Jones Theater, one of the three Broadway theaters  (re)named after Black theater artists. 

Author: New York Theater

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

2 thoughts on “Black Theater in New York Over Two Centuries

  1. Bill Brown and Jim Hewlett were a very interesting duo. The met as fellow stewards on a Liverpool ocean-liner. Their last Grove Theater was at 165 Mercer St. below Houston St., so technically in pre-SoHo. Before that, they were on the corner of Bleecker St. and Mercer where NYU is about to name a theater after the company. James Hewlett was the first African-American to play the title role in Othello. But, their first location began as a tea garden under the ‘grove’ of trees behind Brown’s house at 38 Thomas Street between Church & Broadway.

  2. One more to add to this rich roster: The Blacks (Jean Genet’s “Les Nègres”) had its U.S. premiere at the St. Mark’s Theater in 1961. Stellar cast, included James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Cicely Tyson, and more. (My mother made the masks for the costume designer, Patricia Ziprodt.)

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