By Carol F. Yost
Most probably the earliest real African American theater was located in the Village area. Founded in 1821, six years before slavery was fully abolished in New York State, it lasted just a few years. Black actors performed in front of predominantly black audiences, mostly in Shakespearean plays, along with pantomime and farce.
The African Grove was founded by two ships’ stewards, William Alexander Brown and James Hewlett. While travelling, they had seen much theater abroad, but they had also seen performances of Shakespeare at the Park Theatre, New York’s most prominent theater. Brown, originally from the West Indies, left his Liverpool-based ship and bought a house at 38 Thompson Street. In his tea garden, serving food and drink, he presented poetry and short drama pieces. Hewlett encouraged him to invite other black actors. A sizable audience from the five boroughs of New York City began attending. Brown moved to a house on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker and constructed a 300-seat theater on the second floor, naming it the African Grove. Hewlett was the first black actor of record to play Shakespeare’s Othello. The theater is also thought to have launched the career of the distinguished black actor Ira Aldridge; he later became successful as a Shakespearean actor in England, with tours in Europe and Russia. Original works were also presented; William Brown wrote The Drama of King Shotaway (now lost), considered the first full-length play by a black author to be staged in the U. S. It centered around the 1796 uprising by Caribs against British forces on the island of Saint Vincent.
Wikipedia notes, “As was common at the time, the producers made adaptations to Shakespeare’s plays. Small casts and smaller budgets required expedients such as that described by the reviewer George Odell, writing of an 1821 performance of Richard III: ‘a dapper, wooly haired waiter at the City Hotel personated the royal Plantagenet in robes made up from discarded merino curtains of the ballroom. Owing to the smallness of the company King Henry and the Duchess were played by one person, and Lady Anne and Catesby by another. Lady Anne, in Act III, sang quite incongruously.’ The scholar Laura V. Blanchard identifies Odell’s ‘dapper waiter’ as the actor James Hewlett.”
With courage and humor, the company combated the virulent racism they encountered. White members of the community and the police frequently harassed the actors, and the theater was forced to relocate several times. Wikipedia notes, “White audience members were confined to a separate section because, in the words of the theatre’s management, ‘whites do not know how to conduct themselves at entertainments by ladies and gentlemen of color.’”
Once, when the Park Theatre—where Hewlett and Brown used to sit in the segregated balcony—presented Shakespeare’s Richard III with famous actor Junius Brutus Booth, the African Grove had the cheek to rent a hall next door and present the same play the same night. In response, Stephen Price, owner of the Park, hired ruffians to disrupt the Grove’s performance and the police obligingly shut it down.
The company struggled financially for a long time; finally in 1826, the theater was mysteriously burned down.
The African Grove is important in history. On a railing of the Mercer Playground at the corner of Mercer and Bleecker, a plaque includes a paragraph on the theater, whose first location was nearby. Perhaps one day there will be a statue of James Hewlett or Ira Aldridge in one of their roles.