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Reply #42: The African Grove Theatre NYC 1821-1823 [View All]

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itzamirakul Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jul-23-06 07:00 AM
Response to Reply #38
42. The African Grove Theatre NYC 1821-1823
Edited on Sun Jul-23-06 07:03 AM by itzamirakul
First it is important to note that NYC slaves did not receive emancipation until 1827, so this theatre was in operation DURING the time of slavery in New York City.

Founded by William Brown and located within three blocks of the Greenwich Village site of NYU, and Washington Square Park, the African Grove was a "pleasure garden" or a place with tables and chairs set outside where couples could stroll among flowers and sit and have coffee, ice cream and sometimes stronger drinks. It was on a site "behind the one-mile stone" at Broadway and Mercer Streets and at the time was on the outskirts of town.

The African Grove Theatre was located in a building on the same property and presented Shakespearean plays with all black casts. James Hewlitt was the star performer. The plays were so well done that they soon drew large white audiences and resulting problems caused black audiences to eventually cease to attend. New York newspapers wrote reviews of the plays presented by Brown and his company and although the reviews were meant to be snarky, they did draw even more audience members. When the audiences were racially mixed, according to the NY newspapers, Brown reversed the segregated seating policy and had white audiences sit in the rear, behind the black audience members.

Attending the theatre in the 1820s was a daunting task: theatre goers had to traverse rutted, unpaved, muddy roads and fight off wandering pigs that had been turned out like dogs to rummage for food. The pigs were often quite vicious. Returning home was even more dangerous, for in the dark, there were no street lights and patrons walked the carriage-rutted streets with only flaming torches to show the way.

The manager of the nearby Park Theatre was incensed by the success and popularity of the African Theatre and felt that they were drawing "his" audiences. So he sent "white rowdies" to interrupt the performances. They threw things at the stage and in the middle of a dramatic monologue, the rowdies would demand that Hewlitt sing a "coon song."

The theatre was burned to the ground at least three times and each time, an unintimidated Brown rebuilt it and continued on. Once a fight broke out between the rowdies and the cast members,and when the police came, they quite naturally arrested the black cast despite the provocations of the white thugs. As they were led away in shackles, Brown was heard to be spouting appropriate lines of Shakespeare to the watching crowd.

Finally a visiting group of circus performers was sent to disrupt the play and they beat Brown and his actors senseless. This time Brown did not rebuild and for all intents and purposes, this brilliant, brave man disappears into oblivion.

Such was not the case for James Hewlitt, renowned singing waiter at the white-owned luxury City Hotel, located near today's WTC territory. Hewlitt continued to give performances in buildings near to the destroyed African Grove,for a couple of years, but eventually, he also disappears into the pages of history.

To see a drawing of Hewlitt in costume visit . An annoying ad will pop up but you can click it away.

Brown also wrote the first known play written by a black man in America. The name of the play was "King Shotaway,"
however copies of it have also disappeared.

Conjecture has it that Brown, of West Indian heritage, had traveled with a white Shakespearean actor as his dresser/valet, and after years of hearing the plays, night after night, had ingested and memorized them, allowing him to then teach others and to direct and produce on his own.

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