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African Grove Theater: What You Need to Know About the First Black Theater Company in New York

Some people do not know about the African Grove Theater; it was a Shakespearean Playhouse founded by Activist William Brown in 1816. However, the Black theater was mysteriously burned down. Brown purchased a house in Manhattan on Thompson Street in 1816. He used the backyard and garden to host social events. The events were so well-known for being incredibly entertaining, that people traveled from all over just to be a part of the shows.

New York City during the 1820’s was a difficult time to call home for many Black Americans. It was one of the main places slaves escaped to seek refuge, many of them were caught and often sold back to the south. The Black people needed somewhere they could go and have a place of their own. The African Grove Theater was the first Black theater company in New York City.

In 1821, Brown moved to Mercer and Bleeker Street into a two-story house with a spacious tea garden. He had the second floor converted into a 300-seat theater and renamed the enterprise The African Grove Theater. The evenings were often lavish affairs with large arrays of food and wine.

The season opened with a performance of Richard III (21 September 1821), the company mounted productions ranging from Shakespeare, to pantomime, to farce. Brown followed with Tom and Jerry; or, Life in London; The Poor Soldier; Othello; Don Juan; and Obi, or, Three-Finger’d Jack. The success of the theater was due greatly to the ability to reinterpret and redefine classical theater traditions. The theater accomplished this by molding elements to suit the African-American audience and integrate Negro culture. For instance, a script calling for a “wooly haired” person would be changed to people or a person of “straight hair.”

The company lasted three years before it was burned down under mysterious circumstances. For many years, the African Grove, played with a Black cast and crew to mostly African-American audiences. It was the third of at least four attempts to create a black theater in the city, and the most commercially successful. After a few years, city officials shut down the African Grove, because of complaints about conduct: conduct that was normal among working-class white New York theater audiences of the time was considered unacceptably boisterous when displayed by blacks. Some people say that the theater was in trouble financially long before it burned down.

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