AMERICAN THEATER | This month in theater history


John Emery, Tallulah Bankhead and Donald Cook in “Foolish Notion” on Broadway in 1930.

January 1777 (245 years ago)

This month, British officers took over the boards of the John Street Theater in New York, built 10 years earlier by the American Company of Comedians, and renamed the Hall Theater Royal. During their period of occupation of the city during the American Revolution, the British controlled the city’s theaters, not least because the First Colonial Continental Congress had banned the theater in October 1774, as well as horse racing and horse fighting. roosters. Performances at the Theater Royal were supposed to raise funds for the widows of slain British and Hessian soldiers, although it has since been proven that most of the proceeds have been invested in creating lavish sets and costumes for shows that have entertained British Navy and Army officers all winter as they waited for good weather and fighting to return. Thousands of New Yorkers also attended performances at the Theater Royal, where they saw a combination of plays like The Beaux ploy, The jealous woman, and The lying valet, with musical interludes between the play and the farce each evening.

January 1782 (240 years ago)

This month, actor-manager Thomas Wall opened Shakespeare’s Richard III, with himself in the title role, in a theater he had overseen construction in Baltimore, MD, the previous year. This was the first outing of the Maryland Company of Comedians, which Wall formed with his talented wife, known simply as “Mrs. Wall ”in the programs, though she was often the principal lady, and hobbyist Adam Lindsey, owner of a local cafe that had served as a meeting place for the company. During the first season, which ran from January through July, the company performed 21 different plays and 12 pranks over 50 evenings, performing on Tuesday and Friday evenings. After the public performances, Wall would tell the company which piece they would start rehearsing the next morning. An Irish actor who joined them this first season, Dennis Ryan, took over as actor-manager the following year.

William Alexandre Brown.

January 1822 (200 years ago)

This month, William Alexander Brown, America’s first known black playwright, was arrested alongside members of his all-black theater group, the African Grove, for playing Shakespeare outdoors at the Hampton’s Hotel in New York. Apparently the performances were “unauthorized”, but their crime was clearly playing Shakespeare in black and competing with the nearby White-owned Park Theater who filed the lawsuit that got them arrested. In fact, in terms of their release from prison, Brown had to accept that his theatrical business was “minor” (a return to Elizabethan theatrical designations) compared to Park Theater’s “major” business. As a result, so-called minor companies were not allowed to play Shakespeare. Once released, Brown turned the tide, renaming his company the Minor Theater and announcing an upcoming play he was writing, which would become The drama of King Shotaway. In the August edition of this almanac, we’ll explore the 1922 riots that took place in Brown’s Greenwich Village, which allegedly led Brown to display a sign in his theater that read, “Whites Don’t Know How behave during entertainment designed for women and men of color.

January 1902 (120 years ago)

Tallulah Bankhead was born this month in Huntsville, Alabama. At 15, she submitted her photo to a magazine contest and was chosen to go to New York City to star in a silent movie, Who loved her best. Bankhead stayed in New York and moved into the Algonquin Hotel, where she met members of the hotel’s famous roundtable. She began to be chosen for small roles in cinema and on stage. She was very successful on stage in London for nearly a decade before trying Hollywood, then made a triumphant return to Broadway, where she appeared in more than a dozen shows and met with critical success in Little foxes and The skin of our teeth. She often missed the opportunity to play characters in films she had created on stage because she was called “difficult”. She probably would have agreed with that characterization, as her offstage presence was as important as her onstage talent. Her many adventures with famous men and women have been extensively chronicled and contributed to her status as a gay icon, although she has described her own sexuality as “ambisextrous.”

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