Macbeth in Harlem: Black Theater in America from the Beginning to Raisin in the Sun (Rutgers University Press, 2020) by Clifford Mason, celebrated actor, director, writer, and playwright, and author of thirty-four plays, is a sweeping history of Black theatre from the early nineteenth century through 1959. With an “Introduction” section, and six concise chapters, Macbeth in Harlem traverses such subjects as the Black hero, plot, narrative, and the African American intellectual in the history of African American theater including an entire chapter on Paul Robeson. From the Black Shakespearean troupe formed in 1821 Greenwich Village, that performed Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth in the 1820s, through the emergence of minstrelsy in the mid-nineteenth century, to the work of Robeson and Lorraine Hansberry at the rise of the Civil Rights Era, Mason tells the story of Black performers, and intellectuals, in the development of American theater. He details how integral Black artists have been in the history of American theater while “fighting against the odds” to demand freedom of expression and human dignity.
In the first chapter, Mason discusses early Black theater and theater troupes in Greenwich Village which was a center of Black life within the Manhattan section of New York City in the early nineteenth century. The African Grove Theatre, as Mason notes, was a group of Black actors including James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge that performed Macbeth as a “the heart of their repertoire” (9). This group was self-sustaining and produced shows without the support of white benefactors. Both Hewlett and Aldridge rose to acclaim and were recognized for their craft by the larger entertainment world. The evolution of minstrelsy in the long nineteenth century is the focus of Chapter Two and the degradation of the Black image as illustrated with the proliferation of stereotypes that emerged at this time. Minstrel shows led to the rise of the Tom shows then the “coon” shows amid the collapse of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow in the late nineteenth century. African Americans and the rise of vaudeville and the musical through the New Negro Era is the focus of the next chapter. Mason assiduously notes the impact that Black actors and entertainers had on the development of musical theater in America in this Third Chapter of the book. The final three chapters focus on Black theater in the twentieth century including some discussion of milestones such as Lorraine Hansberry’s Raison in the Son and the rise and fall of Paul Robeson. Macbeth in Harlem is a noteworthy text that reveals some unknown history about the integral place of African Americans in the history of American theater. It is easily a text that might be used in courses on African American history, theater history, and American intellectual history.
Hettie V. Williams Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. She has published book chapters, essays, and edited/authored five books. Her latest publications include Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History (Praeger, 2017) and, with Dr. G. Reginald Daniel, professor of historical sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union (University Press of Mississippi 2014). You can follow Dr. Williams on Twitter: @DrHettie2017
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