A dazzling history of the first African-American theater company in New York, focusing on principal actor James Hewlett.
In 1799, the state legislature “ended” slavery: all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, would be free—after 25 to 28 years in indentured servitude. Against this backdrop, a small group of free northern blacks, in 1821, formed a theater troupe. White (History/Univ. of Sydney; Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture, 1998) notes that in 1821 acting was “the exclusive and natural preserve of whites,” but the new company staged Shakespeare, particularly Richard III, with the lead played by Hewlett, who had been the servant of two English actors. In 1822, the troupe moved next door to the Park Theater. As Hewlett began his soliloquy one evening, the police halted the drama, took the cast into custody, and released them only after their promise “never to act Shakespeare again.” In its old quarters, the company mounted new productions, but months later a group of men entered the theater and attacked the actors, destroying scenery, lamps, and stage curtain. Afterward, the company performed intermittently, in New York and on tour, and in 1823, Hewlett began a career with a one-person show, a format then unknown. By 1825, he was at the height of his career, with plans to travel to London. Sadly, another New York performer, Ira Aldridge, got there first and presented much of Hewlett’s act as his own. Back home, as the American public turned to minstrel shows for entertainment, Hewlett found less and less work, got caught up in the criminal world, served a two-year sentence, and was released in 1839, in his 50s. He took the first boat from New York and disembarked at Port of Spain, Trinidad. There, he briefly revived his stage career before disappearing without a trace.
Superb, well-researched history, brilliantly alive.