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People, Locations, Episodes

Tue, 05.29.1821

The African Grove Theater begins

African Grove Theater(Mercer street location)

*The origin of the African Grove Theater in 1821 is celebrated on this date.

William Alexander Brown and James Hewlett, both ships’ stewards, founded the theater.  Through their work, they traveled to England and the Caribbean, so they had a broader opportunity to see theater than the typical New Yorker and cosmopolitan experience.  The West-Indies-born Brown left a job on a Liverpool ship and bought a house in New York, at 38 Thompson Street. At the start, Brown held the African Grove in his back yard, where he offered food and drink, but also poetry and short drama pieces.  At the suggestion of Hewlett, an entertainer and a regular customer, together they hired other Black actors.

Eventually located on Mercer and Bleecker Streets the Company was part of a growing community of free Blacks who put on productions. The theater's repertoire drew heavily on Shakespeare, with comic entr'actes.  In its seven years of existence the venue played host to Black productions of ballets, plays, and ballad operas that were enhanced by musical performances.  These included Shakespeare and original plays (including The Drama of King Shotoway, which called for a slave rebellion) in 1823.

White audience members were limited to a separate section because, in the words of the theater's management, "whites do not know how to conduct themselves at entertainments for ladies and gentlemen of color." The most popular plays were Richard III and Othello. James Hewlett was the first Black man of record to play the leading role in Othello.

In 1828, the theater was closed down by the city after complaints about rowdy behavior. At least one observer blamed the trouble on white patrons in the special area in the theater reserved for them.

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