African Grove Theatre - the revolutionary turn for black culture in New York City

New York City in the 1820s was a difficult time for African Americans to call home. As New York City became a growing destination for slaves to seek refuge, there were many who captured slaves and resold them back to the South. The increasing population of African Americans heightened racial tensions between whites and blacks. This often resulted in violent attacks against black institutions. Despite the sociopolitical turmoil, black institutions were established to create pockets of space that suited and addressed their social and cultural needs. The African Grove Theatre, was the first black theater company in New York City and is an example of how African Americans could successfully establish their own institutions and spur a creative movement.

Slowly, the social and economic conditions improved for blacks and they realized there was a need to create public spaces for their community. William Brown, an African American man who was a steamship steward, created a tea-garden that offered vocal and instrumental music on the north side of Thomas Street. The evenings were lavish affairs with a large arrays of foods served: brandy and gin-toddies, wine-negus, porter and strong ale, accompanied with cakes and meats.

The patronage of the tea-garden quickly expanded to include not only local blacks, but fledgling artists such as James Hewlett. Noted for his exceptional range of talent, Hewlett was praised for his singing, acting and versatility in character performance. Hewlett would later become the first African American man to play the leading role in Othello.

Given Brown’s success, the black community decided to build an entertainment venue to accommodate the growing demand for culture within the neighborhood. A simple wooden structure was constructed on Mercer Street near Bleecker, which seated 300-400 individuals. At Hewlett's suggestion, Brown hired black actors to enhance the poetry readings and short dramas which had been popular at the tea-garden. Through these developments, the African Grove Theatre was born.

Initially, the African Grove Theatre was created solely for entertainment purposes geared towards and performed by blacks. Among the first productions were ballad operas, a popular form of performance that was actually not “operatic” in the European tradition, but instead was largely based on recitation and integration of songs to express sentiments. The utilization of popular theater forms demonstrated the theater's ability to be attuned to performance trends and audience preferences.

The Grove Theatre was also well known for its Shakespearean adaptations. In the Fall of 1821, Ira Aldridge made his debut as the first black Shakespearean actor in playing the role of King Lear. Additionally, it was also the first stage play produced by a black theater producer, William Brown, who was the founder of the African Grove Theatre. Hewlett and Aldridge had secretly observed white Shakespearean actors from afar and learned their techniques.

The African Grove Theater’s success was largely due to their ability to re-interpret and re-define classical theater traditions. The theater accomplished this by molding elements to suit the African-American audience and integrate Negro culture. For instance, a script calling for a “straight haired” person would be changed to “wooly-haired.”

The uniqueness and novelty of the plays attracted widespread attention and curious spectators. As a result of their success, the theater soon found itself faced with competition, especially from the Park Theatre, which was located next door. Conflicts arose when both theaters would be performing the same Shakespearean production. Reportedly, Stephen Price, manager of the Park Theatre, was held accountable for hiring whites to act obnoxiously during Brown’s productions. Various newspaper sources in the 1820s indicated the rivalry between the two theaters was largely due to the success of the African Grove Theatre. Even with newspapers talking and commenting on African American theaters, white critics did not jump to praise black theater companies. Although New York had several liberal whites, they did not vocalize their support of black theaters unless the Grove Theatre was under attack by racist speakers. Some even referred to the theater’s performances as “clown shows.”

Due to the great controversy sparked by Park Theatre, the African Grove Company began to steer its focus on contemporary dramas, in favor of more “socially relevant themes.” An example of this was the adaptation of Tom and Jerry. Although this play was previously performed by Park Theatre, the Grove Theatre made several alterations to emphasize areas of black culture that were not apparent to mainstream white ideology. One of these revisions included an additional slave-market scene set in Charleston, with a black cast of slaves and a white auctioneer, played by a white actor. Brown also wrote a play, The Drama King Shotaway, which was acknowledged as the first black drama of the American theater. The plot line revolved around the 1795 Carib uprising against the British Government on St. Vincent Island. The function of the theater quickly grew to integrate educational components and “implicit participation in the black liberation struggle.” The African Grove Theatre made great strides in helping build positive representations of blacks. They focused on breaking away from stereotypical roles, such as slaves and other “buffoon-like” caricatures that were typically in white productions or blackface.

Despite the Grove Theatre’s milestones, prejudice from the white community posed a threat to the establishment. In 1821, many white residents expressed their sentiments of fear through newspapers. The increasing paranoia stemmed from suspicions of the African Grove Theatre becoming a permanent establishment and a potential symbol of black social and political power. Although the content of the plays were mainly humorous in nature and intended to encourage cultural enrichment, many whites regarded the emphasis on Negro culture as a “reversal of social order.” In the eyes of critics, the need for Africans to congregate at the theatre was interpreted as a way to form political alliances within the African American community. These factors, in conjunction with the competition from other theaters, led to the African Grove Theatre’s demise.

A great fire occurred in 1826, destroying the theater, although it had been struggling financially well before then. Many suspected that the Park Theater’s manager was behind it. Though the African Grove Theatre was in existence for just three years, it challenged the racial barriers in the world of theater and established a legacy that lasted far beyond its physical presence.


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"Shakespeare in American Life: The African Grove Theater."

Eileen Southern, “The Origin and Development of the Black Musical Theater: A Preliminary Report,” Black Music Research Journal (1981-1982): 2.

Johnathan Dewberry. “The African Grove Theatre and Company,” Black American Literature Forum 4 (1982):16.

Leslie M. Alexander, African or American? : Black identity and political activism in New York City, (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2008).

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