Folger Shakespeare Library
Stage and Screen Education and Inspiration The American Identity



Shutting Down the African Grove Theater

Shutting Down the African Grove Theater
Shane White, chair of history department and professor of history, University of Sydney, Australia

SHANE WHITE: What the black theater actually does, is that they say that in some of the early performances there's a little enclosure at the back for the whites to go and listen to it. So whites are being treated almost disdainfully.

But very soon they realize, I think Brown, and Hewlett as well, realize that if you're going to succeed, you're going to need more than a black audience, and you need the white audience as well. Then they become very aggressive, in a way. They market themselves. The initial theater was in Thomas Street and then they move up to Mercer Street. Then they actually rent out a sort of a bar that's next door to the major theater, the Park Theater, downtown. And they're basically competing with the major theatrical entrepreneur, Price. So they're actually in the face of the theatrical establishment at the time.

When the players actually performed next door to the Park Theater, Noah, Mordecai Noah, the newspaper editor, was actually the sheriff as well and the actors were all hauled off to prison and put in prison overnight, and they promised that they wouldn't perform down there again. So, they moved back to their theater. So, that was one attempt and they, Noah and others, assumed that they had just gone away and would shut up. But actually they had something to show and they carried on.

What eventually happened was that a band of thugs, many of whom worked for a circus, or several of whom worked for a circus, which was actually owned by Price, the theatrical entrepreneur who owned that as well, ended up buying tickets to a performance, going in and just beating up the actors, cutting the chandelier down so it fell down, destroying the costumes on the actors on the stage, and generally beating them up. They also beat up—William Brown was assaulted on the streets. Ira Aldridge, the famous black actor, I actually don't think he performed with the African Grove Theater as such, but he was associated with it, and he was beaten up by the same people. Up in the municipal archives in New York there's a, I found the document in which he files for assault, and Aldridge must have been about fifteen at the time.