The African Company: An 1821 Black Shakespearean Theater Co.

William Henry Brown was a Black man born in the West Indies.   He resided in New York City in the early 1800s and served as a steward on ships that travelled between England, New York and the Caribbean.  He was a “free” man.  Slavery ended in New York in the late 1820s but “free Blacks” were still brutalized and terrorized by whites, and Blacks were still prohibited from attending public schools, voting, traveling freely between states, etc.  In part, as a result of this, Blacks established their own businesses and institutions.

In 1816 Brown resigned from his job on a Liverpool liner and bought a house in Manhattan on Thompson Street.  He started holding soirees in his tea garden backyard where he provided various forms of entertainment (music ensembles, singers, poetry readings or dramatic works) and food and drink as well.  These events were such a big hit that people traveled from all over NY to attend. A theater company grew out these tea garden performances.

Brown moved to a larger home on Mercer Street in 1821 and built a 300-seat theater on the second floor of his home.  Brown hired Blacks to perform mostly Shakespearean plays for Black audiences.  “Richard III” and “Othello” were the most popular.  James Hewett and Ira Aldridge who was a teen at the time, were the principal actors.  The latter went on to achieve international acclaim after moving to Europe where he was a stage actor for more than 40 years.  I’ believe the group was originally The African Grove Company and at some point became The African Company.

Brown wrote “King Shotaway,” a drama about the 1796 Black Carib War against English and French settlers.  It was performed in 1823.  It’s believed to be the first Black play written and produced in America.

The African Company productions were also attended by whites although they were restricted to sitting in the back of the theater.  The more popular the company became, the greater a threat it posed to the larger white theaters.  As a result of its success and racial tensions in general, the Black company was forced to move to new locations more than a few times.

The white owner of the Park Theater (Stephen Price) had hired a famous British actor to star in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Around the same time it was scheduled to open, Brown rented a hall next door to mount The African Company’s production of that same play and it opened on the same night as the Park Theater’s production. Stephen Price paid whites to stage a riot during The African Company’s performance and the police shut them down.

Although it’s not conclusively known why the company folded, some reports say it may have been due to Brown declaring bankruptcy and others says the company folded because the last theater that housed the company mysteriously burned down in 1926. There are no records about this company after 1923.


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