Ira Aldridge was a teenager discovering his love of theatre before becoming the first of his kind to be known internationally. William Henry Brown established a theatre before writing what many considered to be the first play of its kind. James Hewlett was a tailor by trade before becoming the first of his kind to star in a one-man show. These prominent Black men, during the early part of the 19th century, played a pivotal role in shaping America’s Black Theatres, especially in Washington, D.C.
The history of this movement in the district was a topic briefly mentioned during a discussion last night at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. (HSW) on K Street NW. The event, “Theatre District: How Washington, D.C. Became a National Stage for the Performing Arts,” was a look at how the city evolved into “a theatre-Mecca second only to New York City,” according to HSW Executive Director Sandy Bellamy.
“There are scores of dance, choral music, instrumental music and opera companies in our midst,” said Linda Levy Grossman, moderator and president/CEO of the Helen Hayes Awards, which honors professional theatre in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. But Monday night’s discussion, the first of HSW’s fall programming, was to focus solely on theatre.
Kicking off a brief overview of the city’s history was an 11-minute video titled “Again and Again: The Legacy of Washington Theatre.” According to the film, the city’s first playhouse was a bare room inside a hotel on E Street NW in the early 1800s. Two new playhouses – featuring “everything from acrobats to the finest classical actors from both sides of the Atlantic”– were constructed in 1804 and 1822 to accommodate growing audiences. And in 1835, the National Theatre opened three blocks from The White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Following its opening, the building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt on the same site five times during the 1800’s, according to nationaltheatre.org. In the time preceding the Civil War, opera houses and music halls dotted the downtown area. After the war, the city underwent another transformation. Between 1885 and 1915, 37 new theatres opened in a block bordered to the south by 9th Street, to the east by Pennsylvania Avenue, to the north by 15th Street and the west by New York Avenue. And while this enlivened, six-block theatre district was created downtown, an area known as “Black Broadway” was taking shape uptown.
At the time, Segregation forced African Americans nationwide to establish their own organizations and institutions as a way of supporting their lifestyles. And thanks to William Henry Brown, a West-Indian born U.S. theatre producer and playwright, African-American artists also had a blueprint for establishing their own playhouses. “As it happens, African-American theater flourished as early as 1821,” writes Heidi Weiss in a September 2006 Chicago Sun-Times article. That same year, Brown, a retired steam ship steward, created the African Grove from “a little tea garden and cabaret” behind his house in lower Manhattan. African Grove was the first of its kind to allow an all-black casts to perform plays originally written for White actors, which included Shakespeare’s Richard III and Othello.
The company’s productions soon became a popular diversion with White audiences, which started a rivalry “between this small theater and Stephen Price’s Park Theater,” according to a web lecture on the African Grove Theater. As the story goes, Brown rented a hall right next to the Park Theater for performance of Richard III after being ousted from his house on Thomas Street. Brown’s production coincided with the Park Theater’s presentation of the same play. According to the online lecture, “Stephen Price hired a mob to stage a ‘riot’ and had the police shut down the African Grove performances.” Laura Blanchard, vice chair of the American Branch of the Richard III Society, writes on the organization’s Web site that the African Grove moved to Mercer and Bleecker streets on October 1. The company was again forced to close down in 1823. That same year, Brown wrote The Drama of King Shotaway, the first African American play to be written and produced in the United States. The play is based on a Black Carib revolt on the island of St Vincent in 1796 against both English and French settlers.
During the time of African Grove, Brown’s company produced two notable actors: James Hewlett, the first African American Shakespearean actor, and Ira Aldridge, a teenager at the time. According to blackpast.org, an online reference guide to African American History, Hewlett and Aldridge honed their skills “while sitting in the balcony of Stephen Price’s landmark Park Theatre observing the acting styles of European transports in Shakespearian plays.”
Born 1778, James Hewlett’s education of theatre came from following behind British actor George Frederick Cooke as a servant boy, when he learned to imitate the actor’s actions and attitude. But, according to a Dec. 22, 1825 article in The Star, the young man had something else going for him. “Hewlett…must have had a natural talent for theatrical performances and an excellent voice, or he could never have surmounted his early difficulties,” the newspaper reported. Those difficulties were the result of racism. In addition to working as a waiter and tailor by trade, Hewlett was a role model for the African Grove’s younger member, Ira Aldridge. When Hewlett joined the theatre company in 1821, he attempted Richard III with an all‐black cast and played the title role in Brown’s The Drama of King Shotaway. But much of his life after the African Grove is a blur. According to the Oxford Companion to American Theatre, he “seems to have confined his appearances to recitals devoted largely to imitations of famous White actors.”
Among his honors, Hewlett was called “the most astonishing phenomena of the age” by an 1826 advertisement. In addition, the ad goes on to describe him as: “a young man, who, notwithstanding the thousands of obstacles which the circumstance of complexion must have thrown in his way of improvement, has, by the mere dint of natural genius and self‐strengthened assiduity, risen to a successful competition with some of the first actors of the day.” Later billed as “Shakespeare’s proud Representative,” he disappeared after a farewell benefit in 1831. According to blackpast.org, Hewlett passed in 1836.
Ira Aldridge, an American stage actor who made his career largely on the London stage, is the only African American actor among the 33 actors of the English stage with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. Born on July 24, 1807 to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge, Ira’s first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Grove, according to various sources. There, he debuted as Rolla in Pizzaro, played Shakespeare’s Romeo and later gained fame for his portrayal of Hamlet.
Confronted with persistent racism in the U.S., Ira emigrated to England, where he worked as a dresser to the British actor Henry Wallack. His move from the U.S. sparked a series of tours that started in 1831, when he successfully played in Dublin, along with several locations in southern Ireland, Bath, and Edinburgh. He eventually toured Europe in 1852, and was successful in Germany – where he peformed for Frederick William IV of Prussia after being presented to the Duchess Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – and in Budapest. Ira spent most of his final years in Russia – where he met Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Shchepkin and Taras Shevchenko – and in continental Europe. He died in August 1867.
The spirits of Aldridge, Hewlett and Brown’s African Grove motivated the theatre movement on D.C.’s “Black Broadway” during the dawning of the 20th century, when the city became the social and cultural capital of Black America, according to the PBS documentary, “Melodies and Memories.” “From 1900 to 1920, it was this country’s largest African American community. Anchored by Howard University and federal government jobs, this community became a magnet for African American intellectuals and sent a stream of shining talents to the nation for generations,” according to PBS’s Web site. “It developed a prosperous Black middle class which forged a strong society of churches, newspapers, businesses and civic institutions.”
Among those institutions were the Howard and Lincoln theaters. Created in 1910, the Howard Theater at 620 T Street NW was a stucco-clad building that originally served “as a playhouse for both variety shows and moving pictures catering to African-American audiences,” according to a January 2008 Staff Report for Howard Theater. “The Howard is the oldest surviving and the first known theater in the country built just for Black audiences during segregation when Blacks were barred from attending or performing at White theaters.” Success of the 1,200-seat auditorium helped energize the debuts of other Black-owned theaters, such as the Apollo in Harlem, the Uptown in Philadelphia, and the Royal in Baltimore (or the Chitlin’ Circuit), according to “Historic U Street Jazz,” a project of George Washington University. The theater closed its doors when the Great Depression hit in 1929. When it reopened its doors in 1931, the theater moved away from providing variety acts to solely jazz performances. The city’s desegregation in the early 1960’s and the 1968 unrest that ensued after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the Howard closing its doors in 1970. The theater is currently closed with plans for renovations.
Like the Howard, the Lincoln Theater was designed as a movie theater for black patrons in 1921. Initially, it was where African Americans saw vaudeville acts, first-run films, and amateur competitions. When the Lincoln switched owners in 1927, the theater was expanded to include “a cabaret, a hot nightspot, and a dance hall called the Lincoln Colonnade,” according to GWU’s “Historic U Street Jazz.”
The Presidential Ball came to the Lincoln in the 1940s, and the first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman used the theater for a March of Dimes rally. “The Lincoln’s name, its decor, its cabaret, and the politically and socially elite visitors all worked to affirm the importance, not only of the Lincoln, but of the community on U. Street,” according to “Historic U Street Jazz.”
And like the Howard, the Lincoln Theater suffered from the city being fully integrated in the 1960’s. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Black businesses moved downtown and along with them went majority of the neighborhood’s prominent residents. The unrest of 1968 also ended the Lincoln’s golden era. “The Lincoln played B movies until it was permanently closed in 1982,” according to Historic U Street Jazz. “Currently, the Lincoln remains in the custody of the District Government and is awaiting a proposal for restoration.”
Last night, Grossman, moderator and president/CEO of Helen Hayes Awards, had a question for the audience. “Who here has, at some time in recent history, attended a Washington theatre performance as an audience member?” At the sight of every hand raised, she said, “Excellent! A’s for everyone.”
Today, the total number of theatres in D.C. quadrupled from 14 in 1983 to more than 70 now. In 2008, alone, 69 of the city’s area theatres – plus theatre festivals – produced 428 productions, 169 readings and 154 festival productions, the moderator said. The total? It’s around 8,723 performances seen by almost two million audience members. So if everyone in the room attended even one of those productions in 2008, she said, they played a critical role in confirming the city’s current reputation. “The quantity of productions maintains Washington’s tradition as the second most prolific theatre town in the country,” Grossman said. “But the quality and the diversity of the work produced here make Washington second to none.”