AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History


The Native American Theater Ensemble.

February 1857 (165 years ago)

This month, William Wells Brown, the first published African-American playwright, began giving public readings of his drama. The escape; or, A Leap to Freedom on the circuit of abolitionist lectures. Brown was self-taught, having been enslaved for the first 20 years of his life. He escaped slavery twice and spent many years writing and lecturing in Europe so his daughters could be educated there. While he was overseas, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed in the United States, making it dangerous for him to return. In 1854 British abolitionists purchased his freedom, and Brown returned with his daughter to the United States, where he resumed touring and lecturing. In addition to his accomplishments as a lecturer and playwright, Brown is known for publishing the first African-American novel, transporting 69 runaway slaves to safety in Canada, researching and publishing a history of black soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. United States and opened a homeopathic medical center. practice.

February 1892 (130 years ago)

Poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay was born this month. Millay, who insisted on being called Vincent as a child, was known for giving captivating performances of her poetry. After dating Vassar, she moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan and began working with the Provincetown Players, first as an actress. Soon after, she was writing and directing for the company, which produced her anti-war play Capo’s Aria. She was one of four theater artists to found the Cherry Lane Theatre, which remained a hub of experimental theater for nearly 100 years and is now the oldest operating Off-Broadway theater. Millay is also known for her feminist activism and progressive views on sexuality – she was bisexual and lived in an open marriage with her husband, Eugen Van Boissevain. Their former home and gardens in Steepletop, NY, are now the Millay Colony, a nonprofit organization that offers multidisciplinary art residencies.

February 1927 (95 years ago)

Sidney Poitier died last month, just before his 95th birthday on February 20. Poitier’s contributions to film and political activism are legendary, but he also contributed to defining moments in theater history. In 1943, Poitier moved to New York at the age of 16 with the goal of becoming an actor. He was initially rejected by the American Negro Theater because of his Bahamian accent, but after months of perseverance, he auditioned again and landed a small role. He originated the role of Lester in Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta for a short time. Soon after, he originated the role of Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A raisin in the sun, for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Play. Ossie Davis eventually replaced Poitier on Broadway, but Poitier took over the role in the 1961 film. Poitier once said, “Acting is not a pretend game. It’s an exercise in being real.

February 1967 (55 years ago)

The political parody of Barbara Garson MacBird! opened Off-Broadway this month at the Village Gate Theater, where it ran for 386 performances, with Stacy Keach and Rue McClanahan. The piece was developed by Garson when she was a student at Berkeley in the 1960s. At a rally for the Free Speech Movement, Garson slipped a reference to the country’s First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson; she wanted to compare her to Lady MacBeth but said “Lady MacBird” instead. The idea of ​​a bold adaptation of macbeth with LBJ and Lady Bird as the leads came to him at this instant. While satirically skewering members of the Kennedy and Johnson families, the play also implies that MacBird (i.e. LBJ) was responsible for JFK’s assassination. Theater critic Robert Brustein called it “the most explosive play” of the decade, and scholar Susan Gayle Todd cites numerous international productions of the play by directors including Augusto Boal and Joan Littlewood. A film version of the play was in development, but Todd argues that the June 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy stifled enthusiasm for the play’s biting satire and the film was never made.

February 1972 (50 years ago)

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first all-Indigenous repertoire company in the United States Originally named the American Indian Theater Ensemble (AITE), the company has been renamed The Native American Theater Ensemble (NATE) in 1973. It was founded by Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa – Delaware) at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York, which served as its incubator. The company’s goals were “expressly intended to enrich, entertain, and educate Native Americans of all tribal backgrounds.” The first production was the contemporary play of Geiogamah indian body, which he wrote while working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The play was coupled with the short play by Robert Shorty and Geraldine Keams, Na Haaz Zaan, which focused on the Navajo creation myth. Another stated goal of the set was to combat, eliminate, and replace “the negative and defeatist imagery that the media uses to portray Indians.” Geiogamah is currently a professor at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television and a member of the board of directors of Theater Communications Group, the publisher of American theater.

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