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The African Grove Theater — Black Theater’s Beginnings in Our Neighborhood

In the early 19th century, Greenwich Village was rich with different cultures and ethnicities. As slavery in New York would not be outlawed until 1827, the area had a mixture of free and enslaved Black people. Many free Black people lived along the no longer extant Minetta Creek, in an area that came to be known as “Little Africa.” This area was settled by a free Black community and became a rich hub of African American culture.

Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York (1865) by Egbert Ludovicus Viele shows the path of Minetta Creek with the then-current street grid superimposed.

In Greenwich Village, white residents found entertainment through the theater and “pleasure gardens” or tea gardens. The pleasure gardens were landscaped grounds for music, theater, and refreshments. The most famous of these in New York was the Vauxhall Gardens, located between Broadway and the Bowery. Theaters were often segregated and the pleasure gardens were white only. But unlike public houses, pleasure gardens and theaters were co-ed. 

Greenwich Village offered ample spaces for relaxation and entertainment to its white residents; however, those for the Black community of Little Africa was quite limited. But in the summer of 1821, William Alexander Brown opened his own pleasure garden at 38 Thomas St. William Alexander Brown was a playwright and theater producer, and is considered the first Black playwright in America. He was born in the West Indies and worked as a ship steward. After he retired from that profession he settled in the free Black community of Little Africa. Brown’s travels between the Caribbean and London as well as time spent on the boat inspired many of his plays.

William Alexander Brown, courtesy of the African American Registry

The pleasure garden he opened at 38 Thompson Street welcomed all races and saw the birth of Brown’s African Theater Company. The Theater Company would often practice and perform in this garden, but its neighbors — who were engaging in the same activity — complained frequently to the police and forced the closure of the garden. Brown briefly rented a hall beside the Park Theater to put on Richard III, which coincided with the Park’s presentation of the same show. But this hall was too far from his base audience. So Brown moved the theater to Bleecker and Mercer Streets, where they experienced continued harassment from neighbors and police. This forced the theater to move again, this time to Mercer and Houston Street. 

Ira Alrdridge as Otello, image published 1887, courtesy of MAAP Columbia.

The African Grove Theater at Houston Street had three hundred seats for the audience. It was the most successful Black Theater opened to date. The theater put on a variety of shows, including Shakespearean plays with an all-Black cast. There, James Hewlett became the first Black man on record to play Othello. Ira Frederick Aldridge, who first saw Shakespeare performed at the African Grove Theater, would go on to be the only actor of African-American descent to be honored at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in England. The theater also performed original works written by Brown himself, including “The Drama King of Shotaway” which recounted a 1796 uprising of black Caribbeans against the British Navy Forces on the island of St. Vincent. Unfortunately, there are no surviving copies of this play. 

African Grove Theater Playbill 1821, courtesy of the Black Music Research Journal.

A combination of pressure from city officials, complaints from neighbors, and financial distress caused the theater to close in 1823. The theater’s existence is significant because of its brief (1821-1823) but very real financial success as a Black-owned and operated theater in a time prior to full abolition in New York State, its influence on notable theater actors, and Brown’s successful attempt to create space for Black people in the early 19th century. 

To learn more about the African Grove Theater and other historic black theater and black history sites in our neighborhoods, visit our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.

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Village Preservation is joining Project1VOICE, along with dozens of community partners to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the African Grove Theatre. Their weekend-long program Us Supporting Us is a three-day free, virtual event for Juneteenth. 

The full series of events includes: 

Saturday, June 19th at 7 PM – Liberation: African Grove Theatre, a conversation on legacy — Register here

The celebration will begin on June 19th with Liberation: African Grove Theatre, an in-depth conversation on the 200-year legacy of William Alexander Brown’s African Grove Theatre, located originally on the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Streets. The panel, moderated by NYU Professor/Playwright Michael Dinwiddie, will explore the history of Black creativity from 1821 to today. Panelists will include Awoye Timbo (Director/founder of CLASSIX), Eileen Morris (Artistic Director of The Ensemble Theatre, Houston) and Marvin McAllister, a nationally-recognized author, Professor at Winthrop University, and scholar on the African Grove Theatre and the American Theatre. Black Theatre Network is joining as a partner for this event. 

Sunday, June 20th at 7 PM – Jubilation: Project1VOICE Honors — Register here

Project1VOICE Honors, an annual awards ceremony amplifying Black expression in the performing arts. 

Monday, June 21st at 7 PM – Community: One Play One Day – Autumn’s Harvest, for all ages — Register here

Author and playwright Dominique Morisseau will give a virtual staged reading of Autumn’s Harvest with cast members from the original production, which will be directed by Jade King Carroll. This play is for young audiences. 

You can also find live streams of all three events on Project1VOICE’s YouTube, or on their website.

Project1VOICE is celebrating their 10th anniversary as an NYC performing arts organization that provides support and representation for the Black experience in American theater. Find out about additional programming through the year, and more, at Project1Voice.org

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