Still, Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the many, often unsung contributions of black theater-makers. Below is a list of some of the most important moments in the history of black theater in the US. This premiere will cover some of these often forgotten moments, as well as some other great moments in history.
The African Company’s theater is considered one of the first of its kind to have its theater in Lower Manhattan. The theatre was founded for the 1820-21 season by a retired West Indian administrator who rebuilt the second floor of a two-story house. His early repertoire included pantomimes, farcical, and Shakespeare, including the opening production of Richard III. It took three years before it burned down in 1823, largely due to a lack of funding from the New York City Council.
Among the many artists affected by these events was Ira Aldridge, who as a teenager was one of the leading actresses in the theatre. He was attacked in a racist attack and left the country but was later honored as Britain’s first black Shakespeare actor. A few years after the burned-down theater he moved with his wife and children to England and later to the United States.
The African Company, also known as the African Theatre, was to close in 1824, and the play was later embedded in a historical drama based on the life of William Henry Brown, the first black actor in England, although the text was never published and has been missing ever since. In addition to founding the African Company, he is also credited with writing and directing the original version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1823) and a number of other plays.
It is unclear what Brown’s first play was, although a newspaper story in 1822 describes him as a playwright for the African Company, suggesting it might not have been. It was not until 1858 that a black playwright had a play published, and only afterward. William Wells Brown, to whom a number of first publications are attributed, was the first African-American to publish a novel, a travel book, and one of his first published plays, Escape and the Leap of Freedom.
The play is about two enslaved people who secretly marry, and though it may have been its first release, it is considered the first real success of a black playwright. Brown himself was born in New York City in 1822, the son of a slave, but escaped in 1834 and began lecturing on abolition and moderation. In 1947 Brown published his second play, Flight and Leap of Freedom, about his escape from slavery and his journey to freedom.
If this year’s “Shuffle Along” takes the Broadway stage, Dahomey would be the first black writer of a written musical comedy to be performed in a major Broadway theater. The three-act musical was conceived as an adaptation of popular variety shows by Bert Williams and George Walker and premiered at the New York Theater in February 1903. It opened on Broadway at the West End Theatre on May 1, 1903, in front of more than 2,000 people.
It premiered at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in May 1903 and had 251 performances, but ran only 53 times. Dahomey became the first black author of a song written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for “The Show Boat” in 1927, though his inclusion in the musical came and went, including the song that was adapted for film in 1946 and 1951.
The further back in history one looks, the more difficult it becomes to determine the earlier phenomenon. Over the years, so much information has been lost or destroyed, and so much of that information is destroyed every year.