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Students Honor Nation’s First African American Theater

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Cheryl Willis
NY1

A group of students at Long Island University in Brooklyn are paying homage to the nation’s first African-American owned and operated theater that once stood in Greenwich Village. NY1’s Cheryl Wills filed the following report.

For four student actors from Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus Theater Program, starring in a production called “The African Company Presents Richard III” was a dream come true.

The show is about the real life of William Brown — a black man who in 1821 established what historians believe is the nation’s first black owned and operated theater.

“I think it’s amazing. He’s a pioneer,” said student actor Flip Washington. “I think he doesn’t get enough credit for what he did. And we wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing if he hadn’t done what he did.”

What Brown did was nothing short of amazing during a time when there was still slavery in New York. Brown’s African Theater produced everything from politically-charged plays to Shakespeare.

“‘Richard III’ was their first performance, followed by ‘Othello,'” said Quiche Stone, a professor at Long Island University. “And that’s the first time that we know of that an African person played the African role of Othello.”

Nineteenth-century actors Ira Aldridge and James Hewlett cut their teeth at Brown’s theater, which was the subject of both pride and scorn.

“William Brown, the proprietor, cordoned off the back of the theater and said white audience members sit in the back and the African audience members sit in the front,” explained Stone.

“It was only 25-feet wide and no deeper than 100 feet,” described historian George Thompson. “It was wooden. There was a balcony.”

“Now the idea is to get that awareness out of the archives, out of the back shelves, and bring it on the streets where it belongs,” added Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione.

Now there’s a growing movement to place a plaque at the site at the intersection between Bleeker and Mercer Streets in Greenwich Village.

“It’s just a shame that a lot of people don’t really know about the history that’s just within these four blocks,” said student actor Mark Hackett.

“It’s very empowering, in a way that I think we all take for granted,” added student actor Whitney McIntosh.

“The obstacles that I’m faced with now as an actress is nothing compared to what these people had to go through,” said student actor Adrian Coleman.

The African theater closed in 1823, just four years before slavery was abolished in New York State. Some believe William Brown’s extraordinary theater company may have somehow played a role.

For more information on “The African Company Presents Richard III” go to www.brooklyn.liu.edu/depts/theatreprogram.

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Written by Symphony

May 12, 2008 at 7:24 am

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