William Alexander Brown and the African Grove Theatre

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In the 1820s, it was challenging for African Americans to dwell in New York City. They found it difficult to call the area home because the city had become a more popular destination for fugitive slaves. Racial tensions between blacks and whites worsened as a result of the growing black American population. There were consequently many of violent attacks on black institutions. Racial segregation was particularly prevalent in the white New York theaters. For instance, in the Park Theatre, a three-tiered stone structure that had a capacity of about 2000 people, the least desirable section that was at the upper gallery was set aside for the blacks. The obscure section of the higher gallery was left for the African Americans. The lower and suitable sections were reserved for the whites who shown upon every slight incitement to risibility. However, in spite of the sociopolitical turmoil, a variety of black institutions was established to address the cultural and social needs of the African Americans. Black Americans established professional theaters amid the torrent of negative images of blacks in the society and even the theaters. The theaters came to be dominated by middle-class values, Eurocentric as well as traditions. One of the earliest black theater company was the African Grove Theatre that was founded by William Alexander Brown. Its formation was also triggered by the prohibition of the African Americans from participating in or attending the mainstream theaters. In its seven-year lifetime, The African Grove Theatre was successful in a myriad of ways and by far greatly influenced other black theaters along with the actors.

Racial segregation was a major factor that contributed to the establishment of the first black theater, The African Grove Theatre (Miller, Hill and Hatch 335). William Alexander Brown lived in New York City where the enslaved blacks were not permitted to attend theaters. Those that were free and allowed to attend the theaters were often forced to sit in segregated sections and seats of the theater. Brown, therefore, decided to set up a black theater that featured all-black casts for the African American community.

William Alexander Brown

Brown was born in Saint Vincent, a Caribbean island with British and French colonial history. He served as a steward at a Liverpool Liner but later gave up the occupation (Alexander and Rucker, 294). Brown traveled extensively through the Caribbean and England and therefore got exposed to diverse types of theater as he was a pioneering playwright and actor. He acquired a house in New York City on the north side of Thompson Street. It is while at this time that he noticed the nonexistence of theaters for the African Americans. Besides, black Africans were restricted to certain roles let alone the attendance of the same community to the theaters. A fellow steward and theater enthusiast, James Hewlett, frequently visited Brown. Together they watched some performances at Price Park Theatre and later decided to establish a theater on Mercer Street. Brown constructed a 300-seat theater on the second floor and named it the African Grove. Hewlett became the first African American performer of record to play Shakespeare’s, Othello. Even so, Brown hired a company of African American actors to present their productions to the black American spectators. Initially, the theater was purely dominated by the blacks but eventually attracted white clientele. The whites came to watch the African American actors mimicking the European nobles.

The African Grove Theatre

The African Grove Theatre is perhaps the earliest African American playhouse that was founded in 1921 by William Alexander Brown (Shine & Ted, 1). Its establishment came six years before the abolition of slavery in the New York State. Until its establishment, the Park Theater was the only theater where the black community was allowed to frequent and watch the performances although with the restrictions of where to sit. Brown recognized that the black community had begun to have disposable income. There was the need to set up a black-owned and operated theater not only to provide performing chances to the black Africans but to as well get away from the racial segregation in the white-owned theaters. The theater was actually referred to by several names, but Brown later named it ‘The African Grove’ perhaps because it was owned by the blacks and had black patrons. Along the years, it was referred to as the African Theater, the Minor Theater, and the American Theater.

Mentions to the Theater featured majorly in 1821 to 1823 with the initial reference of the theater coming in Noah’s publication of its launch in his editorial in the National Advocate in 1821 (Alexander and Rucker, 297). The theater was operating from Brown’s house backyard at the time. Following the complaints from neighbors concerning noise, the National Advocate announced that the playhouse was shut down but recommenced its shows at a new setting set up by Brown at Mercer and Bleeker Streets in far-flung Greenwich Village. This site came to be related with the playhouse despite it having moved several times in its history. In 1822, a hall next to the Park Theater was rented by Brown because he deemed the location as more centrally located. Nonetheless, due to the fear of competition, the Park Theater dismissed the idea and made arrangements for a break-in on the African Grove. Later that year, the police stormed the African Grove Theater and several players were detained on the falsified charges of disorderly behavior. Brown and company had to reach agreement to suspend their shows next to the Park Theater to secure their release. Following the episode, the African Grove Theater continued at the Mercer Street setting up until its seeming termination in 1824. However, the theater unrelentingly emerged from time to time until 1829.

Food and drinks were served in the course of the performances while the patrons were provided with the instrument and vocal musical entertainment (Alexander and Rucker, 297). The theater company offered a myriad of entertainments such as ballets, musicals, opera, pantomimes as well as dramatic productions. Whereas a majority of the performers were amateurs, there were several performers like James Hewlett, and Ira Aldridge who went ahead to have prosperous professional careers in acting. The African Grove Theater presented them with the opportunity and chance to showcase their talents and develop further in the industry. A chance that was rare to come by with the white-based theaters.

The African Grove Company premeditated and fashioned shortened versions of various plays written by Shakespeare. Othello and Richard III are some of the noteworthy Shakespeare’s plays to be presented by the theater (Penrice, 291). Even so, they similarly presented their forms of universal plays encompassing London’s comic sensation Life in London and Tom & Jerry. The company as well produced a creative drama produced by Willam Alexander Brown called The Drama of King Shotaway that was centered on the revolt of the Black Caribs on St. Vincent’s Island in West Indies in 1795. This served to introduce the African Americans and their influence similar to the American culture.

The Success of the African Grove Theatre

The success of the African Grove Theater was principally based on the capability to re-define and re-interpret classical theater performances. This was realized through the molding of various rudiments to suit The African American viewers as well as the integration of the Negro culture. In fact, in the instance where a script called for an “a straight haired” individual, it would be altered to “wooly-haired.” Also, the novelty and the uniqueness of the productions appealed a prevalent consideration and inquisitive audience (Young 761-762). Nonetheless, because of this accomplishment, the theater found stiff rivalry from the Park Theater. The rivalry exposed the African Grove Theater even more with various newspapers writing on the whereabouts the company. Newspapers talked and commented on the African American Theaters although critics never praised the theater companies. This even worked for the companies as it made the performances to be even better.

As a result of the great controversy ignited by the Park Theater, the African Grove started to direct its concentration on contemporary plays. This was in line with the publicly pertinent subjects of the time that largely contributed to its success. For instance, the more socially relevant issues were presented in the version of Tom and Jerry. While the piece was formerly presented by Park Theater, the African Grove Theater made it even better. Numerous adjustments were made to focus on issues of African American culture that lacked in the conventional white ideology. Such as, one of the reconsiderations comprised a slave-market act set in Charleston, with African American actors as slaves along with a white auctioneer performed by a white performer.

Furthermore, the theater’s function broadened to integrate educational elements together with the implicit participation of the black Africans in their liberation struggle. This helped a great deal in attempts to abolish slavery and in building positive representations of blacks. Among many other intentions, the focus of the African Grove Theater was in breaking away from the stereotypical roles such as that of slavery that was prevalent in the white productions. On the other hand, the milestones of the Grove Theater were interpreted by some whites as becoming the enduring institution and a probable emblem of black political and social power. The content of the productions presented by the Grove Theater was majorly hilarious in nature and sought to inspire cultural enhancement and thus motivated other black theaters to tread on the same line.

Nonetheless, the success of the theater was ruined by the hostile attitude towards it where many whites thought the emphasis on the black people sought to reverse the social order. Congregating at the theater was even construed as a sort of political associations seeking to form political deals within the black American society. Along with the competition from the other theaters and financial struggle, these factors significantly contributed to the demise of the theater. A great storm followed, and the theater was eventually destroyed. Despite its several years of existence, the African Grove Theater challenged the racial segregation and left a legacy that persisted far beyond its physical existence. Even so, its existence inspired and influenced many actors and some black theaters.

The Influence of the Theatre on Black Theatres and Actors

Following the establishment of the African Grove Theater, other black theaters sprung up throughout the nation. For instance, African Americans operated New Orleans playhouse that was established in 1830 and in 1838, E.V. Mathieu, a black American founded Marigny Theater (Smith, Wynn and Bracks, 493). It appeared to be the right way to get through the racial segregation that was common in the white theaters at the time. The founding of the various theaters was also inspired by the need to appreciate the Negro culture and note the rampant prejudice of the day. As a result of the various theater establishment, free blacks enslaved were allowed to use designated sections of white-owned playhouses.

Inspired by the establishment and success of the African Grove Theater, another wave of the African American performers, as well as theaters, proliferated following the end of the Civil War in 1865 (Smith, Wynn and Bracks, 494). The theaters boomed and thrived up to the twentieth century. Emancipation presented the African Americans with more freedom to travel as well as live as they saw fit. Various vaudeville groups were formed by the black Americans that went ahead to establish black theaters. The presence of the entertainment groups along with the black theaters was a clear testament of cultural conflict to prevailing white society and resourcefulness. This is in consideration that the black community was among the poorest racial group in the nation. The entertainment groups comprised of musicians, singers, and other entertainers. A number of prominent blues singers for instance, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had their start from performing in the vaudeville groups acts as well as in a variety of shows. These groups performed musicals that featured the latest music styles and dance crazes and other entertainment forms that appealed to the audiences. The audiences majorly comprised of the impoverished as well as the working class African Americans.

A majority of African American artists and theaters also performed Shakespeare’s works such as Othello throughout the 19th and the 20th centuries. Just like Hewlett, many of these actors included cultural status as a way of emphasizing their humanity. Ira Aldridge, one of the first actors of the African Grove Theater heavily impacted on the subsequent black theaters along with actors. The most of Aldridge’s career and African Grove plays, in general, served as a living refutation of the white racial segregation attitudes concerning the black Americans inferiority. To celebrate Aldridge’s story, many black theaters and performers exposed the lie of minstrelsy. This shows that the African Grove Theater influenced the black theaters and actors through Shakespeare’s Othello play evincing intelligence, nobility as well as accomplishment. There was continual exposure of the discrimination as a negativity facing the American society in general. Also, African Americans utilized the authority of Shakespeare to contend for black inequality. Such plays showed that all men were equal regardless of the color of their skin, with Othello teaching that color had no effect on the character.

Black theaters enjoyed a prosperous period in the decades following the 1820s. Just like the African Grove Theater, the many black theaters established throughout the nation presented some of the only opportunities for the blacks to showcase their talents. Besides, in the same way African Grove entertained in an environment smoked with racial prejudice, so did the many black theaters that were established. To fully ensure that they were in control of the content and every aspect of the theaters, the African Americans controlled every aspect of these theaters. Perhaps, this was so owing to the experiences and successes of the first black theater to be ever established. The writers, producers, directors as well as the performers were all African Americans.

Notwithstanding the noteworthy period of the black entertainment and theater, the whites and some African Americans were in objection of the popular forms of the black theater. Most of the churchgoing blacks were mortified by the naughty comedy as well as singing, dancing, and drinking that often happened in the African American theaters (Smith, Wynn and Bracks, 494). Educated and well-to-do African Americans condemned the amusements arguing that the perpetuated stereotypes ought to be eliminated. However, the theaters beat all odds to continue with their entertainment services knowing very well that the African Grove was faced with similar odds and endured to reemerge time and again.

The black theaters performed a variety of shows, entertainment acts, and musicals. Black actors appeared in plays considered acceptable by the middle class of the African Americans class. The plays performed by the black theaters were classic and mainstream works that were “retooled for the black audience.” Very few African Americans went to the mainstream productions that featured predominantly white casts and actors. The playwrights of the theaters generated an abundance of new material for the black actors that dealt with black culture and racism. These, as a result, necessitated the demand for the new black theaters across the nation.

Conclusion

William Alexander Brown was the founder of the African Grove Theater. He was a free black American and a pioneer playwright and actor. Being a ship steward, he traveled extensively through the Caribbean and England, which perhaps exposed him to diverse types of theaters. He established the African Grove Theater after returning to New York City at a time of prevalent racial segregation that was common in the white-owned theaters. In the white-owned theaters, African Americans were restricted in sitting at obscure sections of the theater room. Besides, African Americans actors were limited to certain roles in the plays presented. Originally, performances were organized at the backyard of the of Brown’s house although complaints from the neighbors concerning noise led to its relocation to the Bleecker and Mercer Streets. It was again moved close to the Park Theater, with which if often competed. Whereas the African Grove Theater would present some Shakespeare’s plays, various original plays were as well presented such as Brown’s “The Drama of the King Shotaway.” Overall, the African Grove Theater is significant in history as it recorded tremendous success that set the way for other black theaters to be established across the nation. It as well influenced actors and performers in general in a myriad of ways as it presented the opportunity for the black actors to showcase their talents and the African American community to be entertained altogether.

Works Cited

Alexander, Leslie M., and Walter C. Rucker. Encyclopedia Of African American History [3 Volumes]. 1st ed. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2010. Print.

Dicker/sun, Glenda. African American Theater. 1st ed. Hoboken: Wiley, 2013. Print.

Miller, Henry, Errol G. Hill, and James V. Hatch. "A History Of African American Theatre." African American Review 38.2 (2004): 335. Web.

Penrice, Ronda Racha. African American History For Dummies. 1st ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub., 2007. Print.

Salzman, Jack. Encyclopedia Of African-American Culture And History. 1st ed. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 2001. Print.

Shine, Ted. Black Theatre USA Revised and Expanded Edition, Vol. 1: Plays by African Americans From 1847 to Today. Vol. 1. Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Smith, Jessie Carney, Linda T Wynn, and Leaning Bracks. The Complete Encyclopedia Of African American History. 1st ed. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2015. Print.

Young, Harvey. "A History Of African American Theatre (Review)." Theatre Journal 57.4 (2005): 761-762. Web.

March 10, 2023
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