The Federal Theatre Project

Celebrating Black History Month in Theatre
Posted on 02/19/2021
Image of Voodoo Macbeth(from Mark Zimmerman, theatre arts director Firestone CLC and Akron School for the Arts)

In 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project (FTP) as part of the New Deal economic recovery program. Negro units, also called The Negro Theatre Project (NTP), were set up in 23 cities throughout the United States. This short-lived (1935-39) project provided much-needed employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of black actors, directors, theatre technicians and playwrights. It was a major boost for African-American theatre during the Depression era.

These units were situated throughout the country in four geographical sectors. In the East, the most productive units were located in New York City, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Newark, New Jersey. In the South, units were placed in Raleigh, North Carolina; Durham, North Carolina; and Birmingham, Alabama. In the Midwest, they were situated in Chicago, Illinois; Peoria, Illinois; and Cleveland, Ohio. In the West, units were in Seattle, Washington;  and Los Angeles, California.

The best-known and most active FTP was The New York Negro Unit (1935-39). Located at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, it staged some 30 productions. Two white directors, John Houseman and Orson Welles, headed it in 1935. Three black directors, Edward Perry, Carlton Moss, and H. F. V. Edward, replaced them in 1936. The unit’s most popular production was the Haitian (or, as it was called at the time, “voodoo”) "Macbeth" (1935), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play set in the Caribbean, under the direction of Wells.

Image of Voodoo Macbeth
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