5 Historically Black Theatres You Should Know | Playbill

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Special Features 5 Historically Black Theatres You Should Know

From New York City's Apollo Theater to Los Angeles' Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, celebrate a few of the spaces across the country that fostered Black art and culture in the midst of adversity.

Chorus at the Apollo Theatre (1939) NYPL Digital Collections

Theatre and performance is a cathartic escape for everyone, but Black Americans were not always included fairly in that vision. Since the early 19th century, Black people were impersonated by white performers on stage through racist stereotypes in vaudeville and minstrel shows, creating offensive caricatures of Black people using blackface for the enjoyment of white audiences.

However, as Black performers began to take the stage, many challenged these stereotypes by creating unique performances that displayed their own authentic talents, taking hold of their own stories within performance spaces that honored their experiences.

To celebrate the theatres that paved the way for Black creatives, Playbill shares the history of some of the country’s iconic Black theatres that contributed towards propelling diverse and equitable storytelling to the forefront.

African Grove Theatre - New York City, New York

African Grove Theater Playbill 1821 Courtesy of The Black Music Research Journal

The cultural beacon of Black theatre, the African Grove Theatre’s opening in 1821 birthed a space of creative refuge in the midst of slavery and systemic oppression. The New York City theatre, founded by West Indies native and playwright William Alexander Brown, opened six years before the final abolition of slavery in New York State and is considered the first Black theatre in the United States.

Prior to the theatre’s opening, Brown would host poetry readings, musical performances, and short plays for Black audiences in his backyard. With white people having access to creatives and entertainment spaces referred to as “pleasure gardens” or “tea gardens,” Brown sought to carve out a garden-like space specifically for Black creatives and patrons to express themselves: the African Grove. 

The 300-seat theatre grew in popularity over the course of two years. The company was best known for its performances of Shakespearean classics, ballets, comedies, and original work by Brown (The Drama of King Shotaway). It was eventually shut down by city officials after rival companies orchestrated disturbances of productions in an effort to harass and sabotage the African Grove's success. The theatre would later be destroyed by a white mob.

 Apollo Theater - New York City, New York

Apollo Theatre Marquee (1947) William P. Gottlieb/U.S. Library of Congress

The renowned Apollo Theater did not start off as a creative space for Black Americans. First owned by Sidney Cohen and then obtained by Benjamin Hurtig and Harry Seamon in 1914, the theatre was originally home to burlesque shows under the name Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. Similar to many public and private spaces in America, Black people were denied entry to the theatre.

Fiorello La Guardia, who would later become New York City’s Mayor, campaigned against burlesque and the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater would later shut down as a result. The theatre was later reopened as the 125th Street Apollo Theatre by Sidney Cohen and Morris Sussman in 1934. The pair rebranded the venue to focus on variety shows and wanted to reach the growing Black community in Harlem.

Despite management continuing to change at the theatre, its resources and success continued to flourish as a one-stop shop of creativity. The introduction of Amateur Nights helped shape the landscape of American jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, and soul. The theatre was also equipped with a recording and television studio. A home to many Black Americans across Harlem and beyond, the Apollo saw the start of the careers of many of the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill, and countless others.

The Apollo Theater has remained a staple in the theatre community. Presently, it is a respected not-for-profit, presenting concerts, theatrical and dance performances, film screenings, and education and community outreach programs. Its community impact put this theatre on the map as one of the founding destinations for Black art and music.

Karamu House - Cleveland, Ohio

The original Karamu House

In the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, neighborhood settlement Karamu House has stood since 1915 as a symbol of community and artistic innovation. Founded as the Neighborhood Association, but most commonly known as the Playhouse Settlement, the space was created by two white social workers, Rowen and Russell Jelliffe, who sought out to produce plays with interracial casts for the community. With the support of the Second Presbyterian Church, they began these productions in 1917.

They adopted the name Karamu House in 1941. Karamu in Swahili means “a place for joyful meeting,” a name that has been effortlessly embodied in the work of the theatre. Langston Hughes premiered several of his plays at the theatre.

Through the leadership of Benno Frank and Reuben Silver, Karamu eventually grew to house one of the best amateur groups in the country in the 1950s. With the rise of Black Nationalism in the 1970s, the theatre decided to focus its storytelling around the Black experience in America. It was later unsuccessful in its attempt to become a professional acting company.

Karamu house remains a community-based non-profit arts and education institution and has continued to keep history alive with its commitment to preserve Black culture.

Lincoln Theatre - Los Angeles, California

Lincoln Theater

Known as the last remaining theatre in Los Angeles dedicated to the Black community, the Lincoln Theatre began its legacy in 1927 with live performances, movie screenings, and vaudeville for 2,100 patrons. It was often revered as the “West Coast Apollo” after Harlem’s Apollo Theater, with the two often hosting the same or similar acts.

The Lincoln Theatre would feature performances from the best Black performers for over 30 years, notably Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, the Nat King Cole Trio, and Billie Holiday. The theatre was acquired by Bishop Samuel Crouch in 1961 with goals of expanding his congregation with a new place to worship. Renamed Crouch Temple, it operated until the 1970s when the building was converted into a mosque for the Black Muslim community.

Today, the Lincoln Theatre is now home to a Spanish-speaking congregation and has been renamed to Iglesia de Jesucristo Ministerios Juda. The theatre was named a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in March 2003.

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre - San Francisco, California

Quentin Easter and Stanley E. Williams

Lorraine Hansberry became the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway when her play A Raisin in the Sun premiered in 1959. The young playwright died in 1965 from pancreatic cancer, leaving behind an unforgettable legacy that is honored across the country, especially with the establishment of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (LHT) in San Francisco’s theatre district in 1981.

Founders Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter opened the theatre as a way to create opportunities for Black creatives and performers. Despite great achievements, San Francisco’s longest-running Black theatre company experienced its share of hardships. Over two decades after opening, the theatre battled economic declines and the disappearance of ethnic-specific spaces in the region. The founders successfully combated those trends by collaborating with other companies and attracting iconic Black artists to share their work with the theatre.

Since its opening, LHT has produced over 135 plays and musicals from the classics to experimental works. Continuing on Hansberry’s values for inclusivity, LHT prioritizes the work of Black and femme-identifying playwrights.

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