NYU’s 181 Mercer Street building, opening in Spring 2023, will be a permanent and evolving memorial to the African Grove Theater, the country’s first black theater, which made history in 1821 on the corner of Mercer Street and Bleecker Street.
A new theater built on the original floor plan will be called The African Grove Theater and will be used for NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ acclaimed Graduate Acting and Design for Stage and Film programs. The space will feature ongoing theatrical performances, historical exhibitions, educational programs, and teaching and learning opportunities to promote the pioneering legacy of the original African Grove Theater as a beacon for Black artists and performers – an impact that continues to resonate immensely today.
The theater is one of several performance spaces in the Mercer Street building that offers state-of-the-art facilities for student productions at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
“The NYU community has its roots in the collective history of New York City and is proud to call Greenwich Village home. It’s critical that we make space for the powerful stories and legacy of these Black artists to celebrate their triumphs and struggles.” It can inspire future generations of theater makers as they continue to experiment, innovate, and encourage artistic expression at NYU and will further improve in the years to come. As an institution known for graduating some of the most visionary artists and cultural leaders of their time, we have a unique opportunity to highlight local history and the cultural pioneers who laid the foundation for development of the performing arts from the early 1800s to the present day,” said NYU President Andrew Hamilton.
About the African Grove Theatre
Widely regarded as the country’s first black theater, the African Grove Theater got its start when William Alexander Brown, a retired steamboat steward, began conducting poetry readings, musical performances, and short plays for black New Yorkers in his backyard at 38 Thomas Street host 1816. The “Tea Garden” was the only place in New York where black patrons were allowed to enjoy recreational entertainment.
In 1821, the African Grove Theater was expanded into a 300-seat theater in the heart of Washington Square at Bleecker Street and Mercer Street. Known for producing Shakespearean classics performed by black actors, ballet, comedy and an original play written by Brown himself (The Drama of King Shotaway), the company attracted sizable audiences and created a radical alternative to other American theaters of his time.
“From the beginning, African Grove productions have served as a forum for positive and revolutionary imagery that depicts Black and Native American life in America, and a vision of what a national theater could be,” said Michael Dinwiddie, NYU Gallatin associate professor, theater historian and Co-Chair of the Committee to Commemorate the African Grove.
“Despite pressure from a white mob that closed the theater after just two seasons, African Grove Theater and its performers transformed American arts and culture, leaving an indelible mark on the contemporary musical theater landscape and asking pertinent questions about audience expectations of black people Art that is relevant to this day,” he continued.
About the African Grove Theater at NYU
NYU’s 181 Mercer Building will commemorate the pioneering achievements of African Grove Theater and its company in a variety of ways to ensure its legacy is known to future generations of theater makers, performers and audiences.
Supported by a $1 million donation, the fourth-floor theater will be called The African Grove Theater and will be used by the Graduate Acting Program and Design for Stage and Film Program in their annual seven-production season. Displays celebrating the history of black theater in America, African Grove Theater and the achievements of black actors in America and abroad will provide important historical context and help educate audiences.
This living archive will also include a scale model of the original African Grove Theater commissioned by Michael Dinwiddie for the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Additionally, a group of NYU faculty and administrators will be tasked with curating events for African Grove Theater, including an annual symposium beginning in Spring 2023 to come together and discuss the history of black theater and culture in New York and think beyond that. The program at the theater itself includes a celebratory scenic reading of Carlyle Brown’s acclaimed 1988 play The African Company Presents Richard III, directed by Carl Cofield, Chairman of Graduate Acting, and featuring graduate acting graduates and current students .
Additionally, James Weldon Johnson’s groundbreaking 1930 story, Black Manhattan, with a new introduction by NYU faculty member Zadie Smith, will be a core text of the NYU Reads initiative in 2022-23. Johnson, who became the first African American to teach at New York University in 1934, writes extensively on the artistic life of black Americans in New York, including the African Company. In partnership with NYU Reads, there will be additional symposiums and exhibitions to support the reading.
“This memorial effort symbolizes NYU’s commitment to advancing the black theater tradition that began with African Grove Theater through the development of ongoing programs and partnerships with New York-based black theaters and companies to support and expand transformative theater that challenges , educates, inspires, and entertains,” said Dinwiddie.
Carl Cofield, Chair of Graduate Acting, responded to the commemoration, “At NYU Graduate Acting, we have a history of engaging aspiring actors in the classic tradition that dates back more than half a century. We have endeavored to create a fertile and robust environment for actors of color to explore their own identities as well as other worlds, other cultures, other language and presentational constructs. In this regard, we continue the adventurous tradition of African Grove Theatre, whose imagination and artistry knew no bounds: just look at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s summer program for the past three seasons: in 2020 our alumnus André Holland was there as Richard II. to see, last summer, seven alumni including Susan Kelechi Watson appeared in the new adaptation of Merry Wives, and this summer alumna Danai Gurira will grace the Delacorte Stage as Richard III. “It’s good for our actors and we’re honored that they’ll be performing on the same land that was once home to the inimitable Ira Aldridge and James Hewlett,” he continued.
Susan Hilferty, Chair of Design for Stage and Film, added: “From their ingenuity in creating imaginative costumes to their ability to transform themselves and their surroundings, the African Grove company has ignited a tradition of creative storytelling that pervades the theater today. It’s a tradition we’re proud to continue. Our program is known for instilling a disciplined practice of craftsmanship, a deep respect for the identities of the stories and characters we explore, and a long-standing producing partnership with Grad Acting that gives our designers the opportunity to develop their skills in new and… imaginative way. It is a privilege that our costume, stage and lighting design students can learn from this history and, in the spirit of African Grove Theater, renew the craft well into the future.”
The African Grove Theater and memorial effort at 181 Mercer Street builds on NYU’s ongoing commitment to celebrate and preserve this community history and to shed light on the underrepresented stories that shape our current reality. The Gallatin Galleries recently held an exhibition entitled Transformation! African American Theater 1821-1921 and Beyond, From the African Grove Theater to Shuffle Along, which explored a hundred years of black theater history through archival material and reproductions, performances and panel events. NYU Steinhardt’s Arts and Education program designed a self-guided walking tour for all incoming students to learn about the unseen history of resistance and marginalized resilience at specific locations, including the African Grove Theater.
“New York University is observing a long-awaited and much-needed recognition of the role of black culture in the larger arc of American history, for the African Grove is an essential part of our theatrical tradition that must be recognized in order for it to be of tours of Black Gotham and historical tributes to Lower Manhattan’s past to the efforts of our neighbor to the south, the Tenement Museum, NYU also plays an important role in celebrating the underlying history of our vibrant campus in its new initiative, “Reclaiming Black Spaces.” said Laurence Maslon, an arts professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, vice chair of the Graduate Acting program, theater historian and co-chair of the Committee to Commemorate the African Grove.
Further announcements of collaborations between black theater companies and artists from NYU and New York City will be made during a ribbon-cutting event to officially open the space in fall 2022.