"The Unwritten History": Alexander Gumby's African America

Gumby's Events > Federal Theatre Project Macbeth


Scrapbook 117:
"William Shakespeare,"
p. [71]

Gumby's volume on "William Shakespeare" has a much more narrow focus than its title might suggest: it is specifically a scrapbook devoted to documenting famous productions of Shakespeare's plays that featured African-American actors. The first two-thirds of the book feature the actors who developed the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' most famous Othellos: Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson, respectively. (Robeson's section is enlivened by ticket stubs and a program to one of his performances that saw Gumby in attendance.) Gumby gave up most of the rest of the volume, however, to one of the most noteworthy theater events of the 1930s: the production of Macbeth directed by the twenty-year-old Orson Welles, which included a cast of more than 100 black actors and musicians and ran for ten sold-out weeks at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem before going on a national tour.

Set in nineteenth-century Haiti and widely-known as the "Voodoo Macbeth" owing to its reimagination of the play's witches as voodoo priestesses, this 1936 production established the theater credentials of the young Welles, provided a rare contemporary opportunity for black actors to tackle serious dramatic roles in a production not written specifically for them, and served as one of the first critical successes of the still-new Federal Theatre Project (a federally-funded New Deal program intended to provide work opportunities to theater professionals during the Great Depression). It also became one of the biggest causes célèbres of the spring in Harlem, including the massing of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people around the 1,200-seat theater on opening night. Demand for tickets was so intense that scalpers reportedly charged up to three dollars for a forty-cent ticket. The handbill at right publicized that opening night performance, though it was perhaps an unofficial advertisement: it lists "the Negro Theatre" as the show's producer rather than the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, which actually financed and organized the production.


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