A Black Theater Flourished in New York. 200 Years Ago.

For the worth of 25 cents — or, for a nicer seat, a hefty 50 cents — the African Theater entertained lots of of Black New Yorkers with each traditional and authentic work, alongside operas and ballets. It staged an “Othello” the next month; different choices, fare much less identified right this moment, included “Tom and Jerry; Or, Life in London”; “The Poor Soldier”; and “Obi; Or, Three-Finger’d Jack.”

Brown himself wrote “The Drama of King Shotaway,” an account of a Black Caribbean rebellion that’s thought of the primary play written by a Black writer although the textual content has been misplaced to historical past.

Misplaced scripts, imprecise particulars and a theater’s sudden finish — that is basically a ghost story. Regardless that the African Theater grew so fashionable that white audiences started attending as nicely, Brown confronted an uphill battle for the corporate’s complete existence.

When he dared to go toe-to-toe with a close-by white theater, every presenting rival Shakespeare productions, he was harassed by police and his theater was raided. His performers had been attacked. He modified the theater’s identify and moved it a number of instances, opening and shutting and reopening till the monetary nicely ran dry.

When a yellow fever epidemic shot by New York, Brown’s viewers dissipated; in October 1822 the Nationwide Advocate, a newspaper, introduced that the theater was closing due to the fever. Hewlett, the corporate’s principal performer, left just a few months later.

What occurred to Brown, and when precisely the theater shut down for good, are each unclear. The final identified playbill for an African Theater manufacturing was dated June 1823.

The story of Brown and the African Theater is simply too usually forgotten in the bigger historical past of American theater. Two fashionable performs, nevertheless — “The African Firm Presents Richard the Third” by Carlyle Brown, and “Crimson Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti — have renewed consideration to this fascinating chapter.

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