The African Company

Celebrating Black History Month in Theatre
Posted on 02/11/2021
Image of theatre(from Mark Zimmerman, theatre arts director Firestone CLC and Akron School for the Arts)

The first professional Black Theatre group in America was the African Company. Their Theatre was the African Grove, located in lower Manhattan at Bleeker and Mercer Streets. It was founded during the season of 1820-21 by a Mr. Brown, whose first name is not known. The African Company's repertoire was primarily made up of Shakespearean dramas. However, the drama "King Shotaway," based on "The Insurrection of the Carvas on the Island of St. Vincent," was performed. Although the script is not extant, "King Shotaway" is probably the first play written and performed by Afro-Americans. The company performed for mixed audiences. Simon Snipe, in his book entitled "Sports of New York" remarks, the audience was composed of white, black, copper, coloured and light brown. The African Grove continued to have performances until late in 1823 when it closed after being wrecked by white hoodlums.

No one can mention the African Company without the names of James Hewlett, a West Indian Black, and Ira Aldridge, an American Black. They are considered the first and second Black tragedians, respectively. When the African Grove closed, the only opportunity that remained for Black actors was blackface minstrelsy. Not willing to settle for anything less than serious drama, Ira Aldridge, Victor Sejour and James Bland, members of the African Company, sailed for Europe and became very successful. James Hewlett remained in Manhattan and performed Shakespeare whenever he could.
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