The African Grove Theater was founded in lower Manhattan in 1821. Other black theaters were attempted, but the African Grove would become the most mainstream black theater in its time.
William Henry Brown, a former ship steward, rented out a building on Bleeker Street and turned the second floor into a 300-seat theater. He had been convinced to expand the theater, which was once a small production in his backyard.
On Sept. 21st, the theater opened to a performance of “Richard III.” Thespians of the African Grove would star in future productions of plays ranging from “Othello” to “Don Juan.” The performance of “Othello” would mark the first time a black man played this role in popular theater. Two years later, William Brown wrote the first African-American stageplay called “The Drama of King Shotaway.”
Star players of the African Grove Theater were James Hewlett, a former steward like Brown, and Ira Aldridge, the first known Shakespearean actor. Hewlett and Aldridge had secretly observed the white actors from afar as they performed Shakespeare to learn their method of acting-out the literature. However, the scripts would be adapted to fit the audience; If the script called for a “straight haired” person, the words would be changed to “wooly-haired.”
The popularity of the theater grew to include the interest of white patrons. However, they were required to sit in a separate section of the theater – rules of the house. When racial tensions rose after the theater was successful, Brown moved its location several times around the city.
One night, in its final location, the African Grove opened next door to a white production of “Richard III” and featured the same play on opening night. The owner of the Park Theater next door convinced the police to shut it down. And in 1826, the African Grove was burned down without explanation.