James Hewlett (1778–1836) played Richard III (pictured) and other starring roles at the African Grove Theater. The audience loved the shows but the neighbors didn’t.
The first African Grove Theater was located on Mercer Street near Houston. It was built on the second floor of a two-story house with a large tea garden in back.
On Mercer Street in the fall of 1821, King Lear limped out onto stage and the audience went wild. Lear was black. The event was the first play staged by the first black theatrical producer, who had formed the first black theater company that went on to perform the first play written by an African American in the first black theater in the country. The genius behind it all was William Alexander Brown.
His venture began back in 1816 in a place Brown called The African Grove. During the summer, white New Yorkers enjoyed private “tea” gardens that offered ice cream treats, cold drinks, music, dramatic readings, and conversation. According to the papers, Brown opened the first tea garden to “which the sable race could find admission and refreshment.” It was a great success and led Brown to build the 300-seat theater on Mercer Street. Here his company staged popular versions of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Othello. They also presented original works such as King Shotaway, a play written by Brown about a black Carib revolt in the Caribbean.
But the African American theater was an annoyance to the Park Theater nearby. Stephen Price, the producer of the Park, hired white rowdies to yell and “riot” at the African Grove. When the neighbors (including Price) complained, the police shut the theater down. The African Grove became a mobile theater for several years before closing its doors.
This entry contributed by Curriculum Concepts International