The Negro Theatre Project was a subset of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program to put actors and other theatre professionals to work. The NTP had units in many US cities, including Harlem.
Enter Orson Welles, whose friend John Houseman was in charge of staging plays in Harlem through the NTP. Welles got the nod to direct a production of MacBeth, and wasted no time launching it in the direction of a Haitian, voodoo theme. However, the play wasn’t set in the real Haiti, but what was, in his mind, a fictional version of it, an island that existed in myth rather than reality.
Welles cast Edna Thomas and Jack Carter in the leads, and held open audition for the other parts. He then flew full swing into rehearsals, which started after midnight and often went around the clock. He referred to it as one of the most sleepless times in his life. Abe Feder, the production’s lighting director, said the company “just loved (Welles). They ate, the liquor flowed--and they were being paid....Suddenly it was a state within a state.”
On opening night, Harlem’s Seventh Avenue swarmed with nearly ten thousand people, who stopped traffic and mobbed the Lafayette Theatre. In Welles’ perception, this throng was populated by “all the Harlem gangs and all the respectable black bourgeoisie, and then the terribly chic crowd from downtown.” Scalpers hawked their wares at $3 for a 40 cent ticket.
The show was a hit. Burns Mantle, for the New York Daily News, wrote, “[t]his West Indian MacBeth is the most colorful, certainly the most startling, of any performance that gory tragedy has ever been given on this continent.”
The production ran for nine weeks, to a packed house, of course. It then moved to Manhattan and played the Adelphi Theatre on West 54th.
Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking. 1985.
Smith, Wendy. The Play That Electrified Harlem. American Memory. Library of Congress.
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