Monday, June 27, 2011

☞ REMEMBER: Macbeth at the Lafayette

A brilliant production of Macbeth was shown at the Lafayette Theatre back in 1936 that would place Harlem theater on the national stage along with the career of a young, talented director. Orson Welles received some major notoriety by taking this version of Macbeth and setting it in Haiti while keeping to the original Shakespeare script. This play would also be known as Voodoo Macbeth and attract 10,000 locals to line the streets  for the premier night at the 1,223 seat theater. The production would eventually have an extended run and tour the country after its Harlem success.  Photo via Library of Congress


  1. If only another titan like Welles would grace Harlem again!

  2. This was a key moment not just for Harlem but for all of American culture between the wars, and it's certainly worth a book all by itself.

    Does anyone mind if I offer up material that (again and again!) didn't make it into the final version of my history of Harlem?

    The most renowned work of John Houseman’s Negro Unit of the WPA was the 1936 version of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, for which Houseman hired a virtually unknown young man with no directorial experience named Orson Welles. In fact, the notion of doing an all-black Macbeth set in a Haitian jungle—a voodo0 Macbeth, as it was eventually called--came from Welles’s wife, Virginia. Once given the idea, Welles’s execution was nothing less than committed and brilliant. He adapted the title role to fit the character of the historical Henri Christophe, the legendary Negro King of Haiti, whose power-mad reign ended in suicide (and inspired O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones). Welles hired only five professional actors: Canada Lee as Banquo, Jack Carter (who debuted the role of Crown in the pre-Porgy and Bess drama known as Porgy) as Macbeth, Edna Thomas as Lady Macbeth, Maurice Ellis as Macduff, and Eric Burroughs as Hecate. The rest were amateurs, although that is not perhaps the best way to describe the group of drummers from Sierra Leone who on their arrival at the theater sacrificed fifteen blask goats to ensure success and then used their skins to make drums for their scenes, which were staged by the Sierra Leonean choreographer Asadata Dafora, who had studied and performed in Italy before coming to the United States in 1929 and who put on the first concerts of African dance in the United States.

    After four months of rehearsals, and free previews for 3,000 spectators, the play finally opened on April 14, 1936 in all of what the New York Times would call its “barbaric splendour.” It seemed like all of Harlem turned out, and most of downtown too. The eighty-member Monarch Negro Elk’s Brass Band played a pre-performance concert in front of the Lafayette, and by the time the press and the celebrities arrives, the crowd’s were almost out of control, held back only by the moral authority of none other than the famed Lt. Samuel Battle, who had long ago become New York's first Negro police officer. In the end, Macbeth ran for 59 performances uptown over ten weeks, reaching more than 100,000 people, most of whom were locals who paid 45 cents per ticket—though scalpers were able to get as much as $3. The show, which got ecstatic reviews, then moved downtown for two months before going on the road (when Maurice Ellis fell ill in Indianapolis, Welles stepped in and performed the role in blackface!).