200 Years Ago, This Black Theater Was Flourishing

WPA Federal Theater
Briona Lamback
November 8, 2021

William Alexander Brown, a ship steward, was born free in the West Indies, and by 1816 he’d bought a house in Manhattan. Soon, his backyard became the best place to be Black on a Sunday night.

Folks rushed from church to get to Brown’s home before the show started. Gin and Brandy filled their glasses and waiters served dessert, while another steward named James Hewlett serenaded the crowd. The shows weren’t swanky, but they were beautiful and Black, so they only got bigger.

Soon, songs turned into Shakespearean plays, and the African Grove Theatre produced hit shows! There wasn’t a large budget, so they created makeshift costumes. Even so, Hewlett became a star performer. Everything was Black and excellent – until they let in the wrong people.

Whites started attending shows, and some resented our excellence – our people were playing “white roles” better than them! So the police harassed and often attacked performers during theater raids. 

In a years-long uphill battle, Brown moved the theater and changed its name several times before its eventual demise.

Yellow Fever swept through the city in 1822, forcing the theater’s curtains closed. The African Grove Theatre ended too soon, but it laid the foundation for Black Broadway today. We must continue to create our own spaces – and think twice about who we allow in!

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