Playwright Abram Hill and actor Frederick O’Neal founded the American Negro Theater (ANT) on June 5, 1940, in Harlem. Originally a community theater group, the ANT trained a number of actors, including Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, among others.
Hill and O’Neal created the ANT with the help of other actors and colleagues from the theater world and began hosting productions of Hill’s plays at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. The ANT was born from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA Federal Theatre Project, and the ANT was one of many so-called “Negro Units” of the project.
In 1942, the ANT’s Studio Theatre training program was established and guided the early careers of Isabel Sanford, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Cosby Show actor Earle Hyman and other notable graduates. The ANT operated a small theater that seated around 150 in the basement of the library for five years before moving to the Elks Lodge’s theater in Harlem. The ANT moved to a Harlem loft for a final time before shuttering for good in 1949.
In 2016, the Schomburg Center celebrated the ANT’s 75th anniversary featuring images of the actors and play productions, along with radio broadcasts featuring some of the aforementioned graduates and players of that era.
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