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William A. Brown
*The birth of William A. Brown is celebrated on this date in 1790. He was a Black playwright and theatrical producer.
William Alexander Brown, also known as William Henry Brown, was born in the West Indies. After he retired from working at sea, he had been a ship's steward; he settled in a community of free Blacks in the lower Manhattan district of New York City. In 1816 he opened a summer tea garden in New York called the African Grove Theatre to cater to the community of free blacks. This first resident all-Black theatre company featured music, theatrical, and occasionally outdoor entertainment. They presented a program of classical plays, popular plays, ballet, music, and opera.
The theater produced Brown wrote Shakespearean works, as well as plays. His theater had its first produced play on September 17, 1821, which was Richard III. They moved to 1215 Mercer Street in New York City in 1822. Brown also wrote several original plays for them. His most notable play, The Drama of King Shotaway (1823), based on the life of Black Carib leader Joseph Chatoyer (whom Brown called Shotaway in the play) and his revolt against British rule, is considered the first play written by a person of African descent in America. It is thought that Brown may have had first-hand experience of the Carib Wars when he worked as a ship's steward at the time of the Atlantic slave trade.
Brown reformed his group of performers in the African Theatre (also known as the African Company) and continued to perform outdoors. Brown's theatre company was constantly harassed by "White hoodlums." Eventually, the nearby Park Theatre, fearing competition, and the city sheriff forced the African Theatre to close. Brown continued performing outdoors illegally. His theater catered to black people in the ways that only white audiences had been catered to previously. It was one of the first spaces that gave free blacks a sense of inclusion and the ability to immerse themselves in theatrical culture and see a reflection of themselves in works written by black playwrights and performed by black actors.
He allowed a white audience in the theater but only to sit in the back of the house. He said, "Whites do not know how to conduct themselves at the entertainments of ladies and gentlemen of Color." The company produced more plays like William Moncrieff's Tom and Jerry. The last record performance of the African Theatre was on Mercer and Houston Street in January 1824. It was not until after the American Civil War that all-Black theatre companies began to emerge again. William Brown, the first known black playwright in America, died in 1884.