Arts and Entertainment

Theater

What was the African Grove Theater?

The African Grove Theater was the first known black theatrical company in the United States. It grew out of African Americans’ lack of opportunity to participate in main-stream theater productions. After a number of gatherings were held in Brown’s backyard around 1816, James Henry Brown and James Hewlett (fl. 1820s) founded the theater in 1821. Brown was a former steward of a Liverpool liner and hired Hewlett as an entertainer in his tea garden on Thames Street. Hewlett, from a New York family of mixed descent, tried to make his way as an actor and musician, beginning in the 1920s, and he became the principal actor in the African Grove. The theater led a precarious existence in New York City at the corner of Beeker and Mercer streets. A portion of the theater was reserved for whites, yet the audience often became unruly and police closed it down from time to time. Finally, the building burned down in 1823. Shortly before it closed, however, in June 1823 the theater produced The Drama of King Shotaway, a play written by a black author, the theater’s cofounder and manager James Henry Brown. This was the first time that a play by a black author was produced in the United States.



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