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Shakespeare & Beyond

The African Company and Black Shakespeare in 1820s New York

Excerpt: The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Race, edited by Patricia Akhimie

Book cover for The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Race, edited by Patricia Akhimie
Book cover for The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Race, edited by Patricia Akhimie

The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Race is a forthcoming collection of essays edited by Patricia Akhimie, Director of the Folger Institute. This important new volume from Oxford University Press explores wide-ranging topics at the intersections of Shakespeare, critical race studies, and other fields.

The excerpt below comes from Chapter 8: “Shakespeare, Race, and Adaptation” by Joyce Green MacDonald. In it, she writes about the African Company’s pioneering Shakespeare productions, the difficulties of navigating racial tensions in 1820s New York, and the tactics used by white audience members and observers to harass and suppress Black theater makers.

Joyce Green MacDonald is Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of two books—Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (2002), and Shakespearean Adaptation, Race, and Memory in the New World (2020)—and the editor of Race, Ethnicity and Power in the Renaissance (1996). She has published several articles on race in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature and on women’s writing in the period, as well as on Shakespearean adaptation and performance. A former trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America, she is currently editing Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer for the University of Toronto Press and Antony and Cleopatra for Cambridge Shakespeare Editions.


“More than a decade before Ira Aldridge would become the first black actor to play Othello in England, the African Theatre’s James Hewlett was active in New York, and played Richard III for them on 24 September 1821. The story of how the African Company’s Manhattan Shakespeare performances were eventually suppressed is a primal scene in the history of the connections between race, adaptation, and Shakespeare that were forged in the United States, and between the USA and Britain. Company founder William Brown began by creating the African Grove, an entertainment space in lower Manhattan that, while pitched towards the city’s growing community of free blacks, attracted working-class whites and new immigrants as well. Brown opened a venue he called the ‘American Theatre’ in 1821, and his resident company of black actors—the first in US history—played before racially integrated audiences, at first apparently with some success. But Brown’s company soon fell afoul of the city’s increasingly tense racial climate, as black and white New Yorkers struggled to navigate tensions rising from the difficulty of defining freedom and citizenship in the new multiracial metropolis (White 2002). His intention to create an ‘American Theatre’ that included his black actors and patrons in the category of ‘American’ could not be fulfilled in a New York whose politics were increasingly roiled by anti-abolition sentiment (in 1817, the state legislature had voted to set 4 July 1827 for the full abolition of slavery in New York) and by a more generalized contempt of black people. The African Company Shakespeares of the early 1820s can be seen as part of a new solidarity and self-determination among the city’s communities of free and enslaved blacks, which might indeed help explain why it was thought necessary to use police power to contain and disrupt their performance. Their Richard III aroused increasingly aggressive heckling and disruption from white audience members influenced by nativist propaganda. These hecklers’ willingness to put their reactionary racial politics into mob action at the theatre neatly played into the hands of Brown’s well-connected white theatrical rival Stephen Price, who eyed the success of the American Company with some alarm. (Brown offered even lower ticket prices than Price— known in the city’s theatrical circles as Stephen ‘Half-Price’— did at his Park Theatre.) Before they could proceed with their plans to stage Romeo and Juliet, Brown’s actors were arrested during a performance, imprisoned, and released only after agreeing to stop playing Shakespeare (McAllister 2003, 79–207). Mordecai Noah, editor of the city’s National Advocate newspaper, used the playbill for Brown’s Richard III to imply that black people playing Shakespeare was no mere harmless public entertainment put on for the enjoyment of black and white New Yorkers alike, but could in fact signal the beginnings of the racial erasure of New York’s native-born white citizens. Was free black Manhattanites’ current ability to ‘assemble in groups’ and ‘have balls and quadrille parties’ the first step towards a dystopian future in which they would try to ‘solicit a seat in the [state] assembly’ or even mobilize to ‘outvote the whites’ (quoted in McAllister 2003, 135)?

At our distance, Noah’s warnings that black Shakespeare was the harbinger of possible full black control of civil society seem ridiculous. However, his conviction that state authority is properly white, and that free subaltern cultural expression bears within it the power to undo the racial foundations of public order, should be taken seriously. Despite nativist trumpeting of the superiority and independence of true American culture, the African Company’s adaptations and reproductions of Shakespeare—the British titan—were experienced as indications of intolerable social upheaval. Like the franchise or the right to organize politically, Shakespeare properly belonged to white people. The workingmen’s solidarity marshalled to oppose the economic consequences of New York’s changing demographics was formed in whiteness as well as in class consciousness. In popular entertainments of the 1820s and 1830s aimed at satirizing the African Company in particular, and the idea of equal black participation in the public sphere more generally, white observers heaped ridicule on black actors’ physicality and delivery of Shakespeare’s lines. Staging their cultural incompetence as a comic spectacle perhaps blunted the underlying seriousness of the assertion that William Brown’s actors were fundamentally incapable even of repeating, much less of coherently reproducing, any aspect of Shakespeare’s text. Inviting audiences to laugh at black Shakespeareans was a way of soothing the kind of racial anxiety over eventual black domination that Mordecai Noah stoked: if successful engagement with Shakespeare was a measure of civic fitness, white people clearly had nothing to fear.”

From the chapter Shakespeare, Race, and Adaptation by Joyce Green MacDonald from the Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Race edited by Patricia Akhimie. Copyright © 2024 by Joyce Green MacDonald and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Podcast interview

Black Women Shakespeareans, 1821 – 1960, with Joyce Green MacDonald
Shakespeare Unlimited

Black Women Shakespeareans, 1821 – 1960, with Joyce Green MacDonald


Joyce Green MacDonald shares the history of four Black women Shakespeareans who took to the American stage from 1821 – 1960: The African Grove Theatre’s “Miss Welsh,” Henrietta Vinton Davis, Adrienne McNeil Herndon, and Jane White.