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The African Grove Theater also known as the African Company, was founded in lower Manhattan, New York in 1821 and operated by William Henry Brown.

William Brown was a pioneering actor and play writer from the West Indies. He worked as a ship’s stewards at times. Working as an ship’s stewards, he traveled to England and the Caribbean, so he had opportunity see theater more than the typical African American. Brown left his job on a Liverpool ship and brought a house in New York, at 35 Thomas Street in lower Manhattan. At the start, Brown held performances at his home in his tea garden on Sundays afternoons, attracting a sizeable audience. He offered food and drinks, but also Poetry, short drama pieces, variety of instrumental, and vocal entertainments. At the suggestion of James Hewlett both entertainer and a regular customer at the theater, together they hired other black actors. The African Grove Theater was attended by all types of blacks New Yorkers free and slaves, middle-class and working-class.

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In 1821, Brown moved to Mercer and Bleeker Street into a two-story house with a spacious tea garden. He converted the second floor into a 300-seat theatre and renamed the enterprise The African Grove Theatre. Opening the season with a performance of Richard III (21 September 1821), the company mounted productions ranging from Shakespeare, to pantomime, to farce. Brown followed with Tom and Jerry; or, Life in London; The Poor Soldier; Othello; Don Juan; and Obi, or, Three-Finger’d Jack.

White audience members who attended the African Grove Theater were confined to a separate section because, in the words of the theater’s management, “whites do not know how to conduct themselves at entertainments for ladies and gentlemen of color.”

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When Brown moved his theatre from 38 Thomas Street to Bleeker and Mercer Streets, he had a dilemma. Realizing that his theatre now was located too far from its core audience (“free persons of color”), he constructed a theatre building which was near an white theater called the Park Theatre.

When the Park Theatre—New York City’s leading theater of the time— put on Richard III starring the English tragedian Junius Brutus Booth, the African Company rented a hall next door for its own production of the same play the same night. Theatrical competition was stiff; Stephen Price, owner of the Park, orchestrated (and paid for) a disturbance over the rival productions so that the police would shut down the African Grove.

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Brown also wrote and staged the first African American play, The Drama of King Shotaway (1823), a historical drama based on the Black Caribbean war in St. Vincent in 1796 against both English and French settlers. The Company’s principal actors were James Hewlett (1778-1836), the first African American Shakespearean actor; and, a young teenager, Ira Aldridge (1807-1865).

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After begin frequently harassed by police and shut down numerous of times by City Officials, because of complaints about conduct by white New Yorkers, and after only three years of begin open, The African Grove Theater mysteriously burned to the ground. There is no record of the theater after 1823.

 

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