March 27 of every year since 1961 is World International Theater day celebrated. To commemorate this year’s celebration, we take a look at the contributions of black people to the field – specifically, three black pioneers in American theater. Click to read their story and contributions to the art.
William Alexander Brown
Brown is considered the first Black playwright in America. He was also a theatrical producer and the founder of The African Grove Theatre, the first black theater in America.
The African Grove Theatre was founded and operated by Brown as the resident all Black theater company in America catering to free Blacks. The company featured music, theatrical and occasional outdoor entertainment. According to some reports, city officials shut down the Grove after a few years because of harassment by some white people and complaints about conduct to the police. The company also moved a few times for the same reasons.
The last recorded performance of the African Theatre was on Mercer and Houston Street in January 1824 and one source says that the theatre was “mysteriously burned to the ground in 1826”. There are no records of the African Grove Theater after 1823.
Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was the first drama by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway and the first with a black director, Lloyd Richards.
Hasnberry raised funds to produce A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1958. In 1959, it opened on Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, to great acclaim. The play explored the emotional conflicts within a working-class black family in Chicago in the 1950s as well as race. A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, making Hansberry the first African American dramatist, the fifth woman, and the youngest playwright to do so, at the age of 29.
Hall was an American actress and winner of the first Tony awarded to an African American.
She won the award for her role in Bloody Mary, playing an island woman who trades with American sailors in the movie South Pacific. Hall played the part for close to 2,000 onstage performances. She was the only cast member from the original Broadway production to star in the 1958 movie adaptation.