Pleasure and pain in Black Shakespearean performance history
In the second of our guest series Black Shakespeareans for Black History Month, Vanessa I. Corredera explores the history of the African Shakespeare Company
Recently, African-American actress Taraji P. Henson explained that she no longer uses expressions like ‘strong black women’ or ‘black girl magic.’ Though they were created to celebrate black excellence, she asserts that such thinking ‘dehumanizes us. It dehumanizes our pain…We don’t magically rebound from pain. We hurt and suffer just like others’ (PinkVilla Desk).
During a month celebrating the achievements of black people, Henson’s comments shine a light on the care one must take when discussing these accomplishments: on the one hand, commemorating black excellence, on the other, never forgetting that this excellence is not magical. It has come at great cost as a result of the persecution, closed doors, limited resources, and color lines enacted by white supremacy. The same tension exists when addressing the role of black theatre companies in Shakespearean performance history. This history speaks to the fortitude of black artists to engage with a figure that was, and still is, considered ‘white property’ (Little Jr. 88). But it also exposes the exclusionary underbelly of Shakespeare as a tool of white supremacy, which necessitated black artists’ fortitude in the first place. Such dualism likewise characterises the history of the first black theatre troupe, the African Company.
Established in 1821 by West Indian and free man William Alexander Brown and his friend and co-steward James Hewlett, the African Company is synonymous with its first home, New York City’s African Grove Theatre. The theatre grew out of Brown’s 1816 venture, ‘an ice-cream garden geared toward the black community’ (Dewberry 128), which he developed in response to the city’s segregated spaces. Black people did not have designated entertainment centers or places to eat, drink, relax, and enjoy their leisure time. Brown longed to create a space ‘for the pleasure of free persons of color’ (Hatch and Shine 1), so the African Grove was born. Eventually, Brown acquired a larger space on ‘Mercer Street (East) between Houston and Bleeker’ (129), and developed the 300-seat theatre on the second floor.
From its inception, the African Company utilised Shakespeare as an important tool for shaping a vital space for black audiences and artists alike. The African Grove Theatre’s first season opened with Richard III. King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello followed. These productions often adapted the play’s texts while adding songs and dances (Dewberry 130). Even if untraditional, these Shakespearean dramas nevertheless provided imperative alternatives to the era’s ‘major commercial opportunity for Black actors’: blackface minstrelsy (Hatch and Shine 1,2). The Company also fostered Hewlett’s career as he became the first professional African-American Shakespearean actor (Hill 12). More notably, the Company functioned as the training ground for a young Ira Aldridge – the renowned tragedian perhaps best known as the first black actor to perform Othello in London – who eventually developed his craft to become one of the Company’s premier performers before leaving for his acclaimed European career.
‘The African Company also fostered James Hewlett’s career as he became the first professional African-American Shakespearean actor, and more notably, the Company functioned as the training ground for a young Ira Aldridge’
The African Company did not simply turn to Shakespeare, however. It also staged original works. In fact, Brown wrote and produced the play The Drama of King Shotaway (1823), ‘a chronicle play about the insurrection of Caribs against the British on the island of St. Vincent’ (Hill 14). It became ‘the first play known to be written and performed by an African American’ (Hatch and Shine 1). The African Company’s performances were so popular that they even attracted white patrons and audiences. There can be no question of the artistic and social achievement by the African Company and the theatre that housed it.
What makes the African Company’s successes especially remarkable is their realisation under significant external threats. The white audiences who attended the African Grove Theatre were notoriously rowdy, so much so that the company created a special section in the back specifically for them. This rambunctiousness caused neighbors to complain. The theatre thus had to be mobile for some time in order to avoid police raids. Most infamous is the tension between the Company and Stephen Price, the producer of their white-serving competitor, The Park Theatre. Price repeatedly had the police shut down the Company’s performances, indicating that though ‘whites had initially found it curious and amusing that the black company of actors was attempting to do Shakespeare,’ eventually, the quality of their performances was perceived as competition (Dewberry 129). But the African Company did not accept these challenges passively. When the Park Theatre staged Richard III, the Company used the hall next door to stage its own Richard III on the same night. In response, Price hired a mob to ‘riot’ so that the police would shut down the Company. After 1823, there are no more records of either the African Company nor the African Grove, though some sources indicate that the theatre burned, with some even implicating Price.
”Whites had initially found it curious and amusing that the black company of actors was attempting to do Shakespeare’ eventually, the quality of their performances was perceived as competition’
Despite this nebulous closure, the legacy of both the African Company and African Grove remain, a testimony to the ways ‘African Americans have fought for the right to perform Shakespeare…[finding] in Shakespeare a source of joy, inspiration, and innovation even as they resist his use as an agent of dominion’ (Cahill and Hall 4). A black Shakespearean theatre company is no longer a novelty in the U.S., as signaled by established entities like the San Francisco-based African-American Shakespeare Company (founded in 1994 by Sherri Young) and fledgling regional startups, like the Black Ensemble Players of Minneapolis (founded in 2018). The African Company also continues to foster black art. The play The African Company Presents Richard III (1998), written by African American Carlyle Brown, dramatizes the events surrounding the competing Richard IIIs. It thereby meditates on ‘the appropriation of English drama for African-American actors and the racial implications of such a move’ (Stageagent). Ultimately, despite the African Company’s inauspicious end, one that signals the struggle and pain so long (and still) inflicted on black artists, this is nevertheless a story of black triumph based not on magic but on a centuries-long commitment to reimagination and liberation.
Brown, Carlyle. The African Company Presents Richard III. Stage Agent.
Dewberry, Jonathan. The African Grove Theatre and Company. Black American Literature
Forum, vol. 16, no. 4, 1982, pp. 128-131.
Hatch, James V., and Ted Shine, editors. Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans from 1847 to Today. The Free Press, 1974.
Hill, Errol. Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors. U of Massachusetts P, 1984.
Little Jr., Arthur. Re-Historicizing Race, White Melancholia, and the Shakespearean Property. Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 1, 2016, pp. 84-103.
Pinkvilla Desk. Taraji P. Henson criticises and voices her thoughts on labels like ‘Black girl magic’: It dehumanizes our pain.