Description: In 1821, before slavery was phased out in New York City, William Brown tried to “change the world with a play” when he:
-Established the first African-American theater
-Cordoned off the back of his theater and restricted white audience members to that area
-Produced Shakespearean plays and his own drama--the first play written by an African-American
-Produced the first integrated acting troupe in New York
-Attempted to change popular images of African-Americans that were created by white Americans
-Dramatized a slave auction and confronted the issue of slavery on the stage
On 17 September 1821, nearly a decade before slavery was completely phased out in New York City, William Brown's African Theater presented its first performance (Shakespeare's Richard III) near the intersection of Bleecker and Mercer Streets in Greenwich Village. Long Island University (LIU) Theatre Program students and Professor Quiche Stone seek to commemorate this significant but under-recognized event in African-American and New York City history by placing a plaque near the original site of William Brown's African Theater.
This, the first African-American owned and staffed theater, is responsible for a number of noteworthy cultural landmarks. The company initially produced Shakespearean plays and later produced Brown's own play, The Drama of King Shotaway. Although not extant, Shotaway was the first known play written by an African-American. Brown also produced his own politically charged version of William Moncrieff's Tom and Jerry, turning a light comedy into an indictment of slavery by changing the play's setting to Charleston and adding a provocative slave auction scene. To enhance the shock value of this production, Brown hired a well-known white comic actor to play the auctioneer. It is likely that this was the first instance of an integrated acting troupe in New York. When rowdy whites began attending his theatre, Brown made one of his most audacious social statements. He cordoned off a section and confined white audience members to the back of the house. Brown and his company paid a high price for bringing the struggle for civil rights to the stage. They were frequently jailed and beaten and Brown eventually had to leave New York. However, before its end, the theatre produced renowned African-American actors Ira Aldridge and James Hewlett.