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by Wendy Smith
(Reproduced by permission from the January-February 1996 issue of Civilization magazine)
For days, Harlem residents strolling anywhere between Lexington Avenue and
Broadway from 125th to 140th Streets had seen the word "MACBETH"
stenciled in glowing paint at every corner. New York's African-American
community had been discussing the new production by the Federal Theater Project's
Negro Unit with mingled pride and anxiety for months, and by opening night on
April 14, 1936, anticipation had reached a fever pitch. At 6:30 p.m., 10,000
people stood as close as they could come to the Lafayette Theatre on Seventh
Avenue near 131st Street, jamming the avenue for 10 blocks and halting
northbound traffic for more than an hour.
Orson Welles c. 1937. Van Vechten Portraits Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.
Spotlights swept the crowd as mounted policemen strove to keep the entrance
to the theater open for the arriving ticket holders, an integrated group of "Harlemites
in ermine, orchids and gardenias, Broadwayites in mufti," as the New
York World-Telegram noted the next day. Every one of the Lafayette's 1,223
seats was taken; scalpers were getting $3 for a pair of 40-cent tickets. The
lobby was so packed people couldn't get to their seats; the curtain, announced
for 8:45, didn't rise until 9:30. When it finally did, on a jungle scene
complete with witches and voodoo drums, the frenzied mood outside the theater
was matched by that within.
"Excitment...fairly rocked the Lafayette Theatre," The New
York Times commented the next morning. The spectators were enthusiastic and
noisy; they vocally encouraged Macbeth's soliloquies and clapped vigorously when
the second act opened with more than half of the 100-plus cast massed
onstage for his coronation ball, a sea of colorful costumes swaying to the
strains of Joseph Lanner waltzes. After the curtain fell on the final grim
tableau of the witches holding Macbeth's severed head aloft as Hecate intoned
ominously, "The charm's wound up!" cheers and applause filled the
auditorium for 15 minutes. Not bad for a show directed by an actor barely out
of his teens with a cast that was 95 percent amateur, and a scenery and costume
budget of $2,000.
The "Voodoo Macbeth," as this all-black version set in
19th century Haiti came to be called, was notable on several counts. It was one
of four Manhattan premieres in the spring of 1936 that solidified the shaky
reputation of the Federal Theater Project, the most controversial of the Works
Progress Administration's arts programs. (The project had been under fire since
its founding in August 1935 for spending taxpayers' money on salaries without
actually providing much theater for the public to see.) Macbeth
launched the meteoric directing career of Orson Welles, not yet 21 when it
opened, who would go on to astonish New York theatergoers with several more bold
stage productions before departing for Hollywood in 1939. It gave
African-American performers, usually restricted to dancing and singing for white
audiences, a chance to prove they were capable of tackling the classics.
Feverish anticipation: Opening night. Federal Theatre Project Collection.
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