The African Grove Theater

James Hewlett as Richard III in a c. 1821 production.  Hewlett, an actor who got his start at the African Grove Theater, was one of the most famous African-American actors of the time.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

James Hewlett as Richard III in a c. 1821 production. Hewlett, an actor who got his start at the African Grove Theater, was one of the most famous African-American actors of the time. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Greenwich Village in the early 19th century had a varied mix of racial communities living within its boundaries.  As slavery was not formally abolished within New York until 1827, there existed both slave and free black communities, inhabiting an area around the now disappeared Minetta Creek (namesake for Minetta Lane/Minetta Street) known as “Little Africa.”  Within this dynamic community and serving the local population were churches, bars, and for a period from 1821-1823 (1826 according to some records), a theater known as the African Grove Theater

The African Grove Theater was founded by William Alexander Brown, a free African American and pioneering actor and playwright.  Through his work as a ship’s steward, he traveled extensively through England and the Caribbean, where he was exposed to different types of theater.  On his return to New York City, Brown bought a house on 38 Thompson Street and began his theater company, the African Company.

Originally, Brown’s company would meet and perform in his own back yard, but complaints from neighbors and the police at the time forced Brown to move.  He eventually moved his theater north to Bleecker and Mercer Streets, but soon found it was too far from his core audience, and so moved down to Mercer and Houston.  Brown’s African Grove Theater was located near a theater serving a white audience, the Park Theater, with which it often competed.

While the African Company would often put on Shakespearian plays, it would also present original works as well.  One of them, Brown’s own “The Drama of King Shotaway,” was preformed there in 1823, recounting a 1796 uprising of black Caribbeans against the British Navy Forces on the island of St. Vincent.  This play is believed to have been the first full-length play by an African-American performed in the United States.  Unfortunately, the script and other details about this play are now lost.

The African Grove Theatre in Greenwich Village, ca. 1821. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The African Grove Theatre in Greenwich Village, ca. 1821. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The African Company and the African Grove Theater were disbanded in 1823, as a result of both financial distress and city intervention.  City Officials shut it down in response to complaints about the unacceptably boisterous conduct of the African-American theatergoers and performers — conduct similar to and often considered normal when displayed by working-class white patrons.  A couple of years ago, we here at GVSHP ran a program on the theater in conjunction with Quiche Stone, a professor from Long Island University.  Stone discussed the theater’s inaugural production, Richard III, which was so beyond the comprehension of most New Yorkers that a journalist felt compelled to inform his readers that his review of the theater was not in jest. Brown’s actors faced violent disruptions of their performances and were even jailed, but the African Theater persevered.  While the theater and company was not the first attempt to create a black theater within New York City at this time, Grove is remembered as the most financially successful.

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Matthew Morowitz