(Image Source: Inverse)
It’s mind boggling to me, but back in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, the federal government paid a then-unknown, and very young Orson Welles to put on a play… featuring an all Black cast. But this did indeed happen, although it’s not well-remembered (and when it is, it’s more in the context of what made Welles a wunderkind on his way to “War of the Worlds” and “Citizen Kane” greatness).
Founded in 1935 as a part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the Works Projects Administration was an arm of the New Deal with one task: put millions of unemployed Americans back to work. While the WPA was more expensive than issuing direct relief payments to the unemployed, it created a whopping 8 million jobs, and chances are you still enjoy the fruits of government-funded projects today: many of the roads, bridges, libraries, schools, parks, airports, and even stadiums we access today were all built during the WPA’s eight-year existence.
One of the WPA’s lesser-known initiatives was Federal Project Number One, which sought to employ artists, musicians, artists, and actors. Even New Deal supporters of the day questioned the wisdom of spending taxpayers’ money to commission murals, paintings, music festivals, and theatrical productions on such a large scale: some $27 million of the $4.88 billion allotted by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act were funneled to Federal Project Number One. However, for WPA director Harry Hopkins, creating work for artists was a no-brainer: “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.”
Hopkins created the Federal Theater Project (along with divisions for music, art, and writing) in 1935, naming producer, playwright, and Vassar College theater professor Hallie Flanagan to head it. Under Flanagan’s incredibly progressive direction, the project sought not only to create jobs, but to provide a diverse array of theater groups across the country the funding and platforms to produce work that reflected their communities. Most importantly, Flanagan unabashedly sought to use those works as a way to combat racism, sexism, and poverty.
While failing health severely limited her participation in the Macbeth production, famed African-American actress, director, and producer Rose McClendon was chosen by Flanagan to head the new Negro Theater Unit. Under its banner she founded groups in cities like Seattle, Birmingham, Chicago, Los Angeles, and of course, her hometown — Harlem. McClendon selected experienced producer John Houseman as co-director of the Harlem unit, and under his advisement, hired a then-unknown Orson Welles to turn his vision of a Haitian-themed Macbeth interpretation into reality.
But not everyone was thrilled about this. Actually, a whole lot of people were just plain mad about it:
Even before its debut, the play faced rebuke. New Deal opponents had already declared that the Federal Theater Project was a waste of tax dollars, yet another in the long line of Roosevelt’s excessing spending programs. Seeing federal money going to produce such “radical” works, Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune called the Negro Theater an “exhibition of deluxe boondoggling.” FTP productions like Welles’ Macbeth were so controversial, in fact, that Hallie Flanagan was eventually called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of using the Federal Theater Project as a front to spread communist and socialist propaganda.
Once the play went up, self-appointed purists decried the all-black production as a mockery of Shakespeare and the institution of the theater itself. African-American actors were fine as entertainers, but were certainly not meant perform the classics. It “wasn’t Shakespeare at all,” wailed one critic, but rather “an experiment in Afro-American showmanship.” The acting was panned as being performed with “childlike austerity” while other critics commented on the lack of “poetic delivery” and “vocal passion.”
*Eyeroll* Shocker, some critics would describe Black actors’ performances as “childlike” and lacking. *Extended eyeroll*
Many African-Americans were upset that Welles, a white director, was chosen to lead an otherwise all-Black production. The play coincided with the height of the Harlem Renaissance: writers, poets, and playwrights like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay were producing some of their best work (Hughes’ The Mulatto had just opened in Harlem to rave reviews). Most of the building blocks for the Negro Theater Unit were already in place due to McClendon founding The Negro People’s Theater a year earlier. There was already a wealth of experience and talent in the African-American community, especially in Harlem, but a significant lack of funding and opportunity. Why hand the reins of such a well-funded, potentially ground-breaking project to a white guy from the Midwest?
(Image Source: Inverse Entertainment)
Valid question, valid points. In the end, though, things turned out exceedingly well.
With a cast of more than 750 actors, musicians, and extras, the Harlem Negro Theater Unit’s premiere performance on April 14th, 1936 defied any and all expectation. Critical reviews and suspicions be damned, the play was a hit with audiences, black and white alike.
An integrated crowd of more than 10,000 people gathered to attend the opening at Harlem’s historic Lafayette Theater. When the play ended, it was reported that there was a 15-minute standing ovation. This is important, because at that time, even in northern cities like New York, most venues were still heavily segregated. Even George Gershwin’s legendary production of Porgy and Bess, which debuted a year earlier, was performed in front of all-white audiences. After the 10-week run at the Lafayette, and another shorter run in Manhattan, the troupe toured to cities like Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Boston, performing Macbeth to sold-out, integrated crowds across the country.
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