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



James Hewlett's Later Career

James Hewlett's Later Career
Shane White, chair of history department and professor of history, University of Sydney, Australia

SHANE WHITE: Well, after the theater is shut down, Hewlett's already beginning to break away from the black theater, and he goes off and makes a living for about the next seven or eight years doing a one-man show. And he gets up on stage and does a series of songs and skits and it's very, very fast. It's cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.

What he becomes very well known for is doing impersonations of white actors. So what you're having is a black actor onstage impersonating whites, famous white actors in their most famous roles. So he'll do Kean's Richard III, or Macready's Hamlet, or whatever. And Hewlett actually had been to England, been to France, and it becomes sort a way of, in the days before television and video clips, Hewlett would actually do impersonations which were noted for their precision and their accuracy of actors who hadn't yet come to America.

He was hiring halls that could seat five or six hundred people and he was marketing himself so that—The one picture we have of Hewlett, it turns out that he had a subscription performance and as part of it you actually got this picture of Hewlett, as well as a ticket to attend. Because Hewlett had these one-man performances, it wasn't that uncommon for rioting or trouble to break out and Hewlett was actually very quick on his feet and answering the hecklers, too. I think you would become very hard in that sort of environment. I think he gave as good as he got. But he was always trying to control the audience and by having a subscription, buying tickets in advance, it stopped a bunch of drunks on the night coming in. So he was experimenting with the way theater was performed as well, in New York City.

It was sort of like Hewlett was sort of in vogue there for a while, and in the early 1830s he no longer was in vogue. But in fact Hewlett actually then goes on to, he gets convicted of theft. When he's touring through Pennsylvania, you find little pieces in the newspaper suggesting that he didn't always pay his hotel bill and occasionally nicked off in the middle of the night. Well, in the early 1830s he gets convicted of theft and then he gets convicted again of theft, so he does two stints in prison. He comes back to New York to die, but the last reference we have of him is in Trinidad in 1839, when he's performing Othello.