Dominic Taylor: What I'm Teaching

The African Grove to the Rise of the American Musical (Th/Afro M103B)

By Noela Hueso

Every Winter quarter, Professor Dominic Taylor, the Acting Department of Theater Chair at UCLA TFT, teaches an undergraduate course on African American theater. It’s a four-part cycle that, collectively, looks at material from 1619 to the present. He’s currently teaching the second class in the sequence, which touches upon early musical theater, blackface performance and the Harlem Renaissance. He developed the courses as a two-part series when he was a professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and it grew in scope when he arrived at UCLA TFT in 2015. “There’s just so much material to cover in a 10-week period of time that you can't do from 1619 to 1920 with any kind of justice,” he says. He recently took a moment from his busy schedule to chat about it.

Your current class covers the decades between 1820-1920. What are the time frames for the others?

Dominic Taylor: The first one goes from 1619 to 1820, which looks more at ritual: how imported and enslaved Africans built ritual performance spaces; we make the connection between Mardi Gras and the Egungun Festival of the Yoruba people of Nigeria in terms of costumes, headdresses and music. That class is more about music, anthropology, ritual and performance. Next Winter Quarter we will look at the time period between the Harlem Renaissance in 1920 to the Black Arts Movement of 1960; in AY 2021-22, we’ll be looking at the time period between the Black Arts Movement up to today.

What do you look at in this class?

Because there aren’t a lot of play texts available from 1820 to 1920, much of our class time is devoted to reading parts of the Constitution, talking about the Declaration of Independence and looking at the pillars of nation-state construction — economic, political, ideological and social — and how those things interact in terms of how American identity is constructed. In the last couple of weeks of the quarter, though, we’re looking at plays.

Which ones?

This week, we’re looking at one of the first African American dramas, The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom, which was written in 1847 by the abolitionist William Wells Brown and published in London. It’s an autobiographical play about an enslaved person and his wife escaping to Canada. Wells Brown went to Canada and then London, where he lived most of his life, writing about America. The play uses music and narrative to tell that story in a different way.

How is it different?

There are many ways that this play operates differently. A simple one is that it took minstrel songs of the day and inverted them. “Dandy Jim from Caroline” was a popular song of the day that Wells Brown turned into a song of freedom. He put the song in the mouth of the least likely character, Cato, who burned to be free.

When was The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom first performed?

Wells Brown did readings of it at abolitionist meetings, but it never had a real production until 1971, long after he died.

You discuss a New York City theater called the African Grove. Why is it significant?

William Alexander Brown founded the African Grove in 1821 and produced many classical plays there including Othello and Richard III. It was the most successful Black theater in New York City during its short life — it was only around for three years. His co-founder was James Hewlett, an African American actor, who most famously played the title role in Richard III. Another famous actor from the era, Ira Aldridge, attended the theater as a young boy.

Why did it exist only for three years?

In 1824, the theater company did one of its productions of Richard III, and a rival white theater, the Park Theater, had the police come and arrest them, because they, too, were doing a production of Richard III. That ultimately put an end to the African Grove.

Do we know anything about that production itself?

The only records we have about the production are playbills, a review by the National Advocate, which was a newspaper at the time, and the bizarre National Advocate story about their arrest: They were only released when they promised never to perform Shakespeare again. Another paper noted that the play was being performed but said nothing about the production itself; the commentary had to do with the fact that white people were watching the show from the back of the house and the people of color were seated in the front.

That was unusual for the time.

Yes. The audiences at the African Grove were primarily people of color; they were the ones who had what were essentially subscriptions and guaranteed seats; but oftentimes there were white people who were interested in watching their plays, too; since the seats were already filled, they stood in the back of the house.

What interests you most about the African Grove?

I’m fascinated by so many things about the African Grove. They had both enslaved and free people in the audience. Slavery in New York, which was abolished in 1827, was different than slavery in the South. Owners allowed their enslaved persons to enjoy theater. Before he started acting, James Hewlett was a longshoreman; as an actor with the African Grove, he was paid enough to live on — which in the 21st century is hard to do!

What happened to Hewlett and Brown after the African Grove closed?

Hewlett started a theater company in Brooklyn; Brown went to upstate New York and did theater in Albany. Aldridge went on to became ridiculously famous. He performed all over Europe. He is credited with being the first Black guy to do Othello in London. There’s a statue of him in St. Petersburg, Russia.

When did blackface performance — the minstrel show — emerge?

In the 1830s and the 1840s, when America is still an infant country. It’s the first entertainment export that we brought to the world and it marked, unfortunately, what America was to the world in so many ways. In the class, I frame it in terms of not just performance but in the making of the nation-state that is the United States, and how central that performance of Blackness was to either peoples’ understanding or misunderstanding of what it is to be an American or what it is to be Black.

Who were the originators of the genre?

T.D. Rice is considered the first. He was a white man who created the character of Jim Crow. Dan Emmett, who wrote the song "Dixie," created the Virginia Minstrels, which shaped the form; he also wrote about theater history. These guys are well known. Much has been written about them. The minstrel show, along with a number of other arts forms, coalesce into vaudeville at the end of the 19th century, becoming this wonderful amalgam that is American performance. These include the medicine show, which for all of its problematics of people selling snake oil, would also entertain you; they'd put up their tents or their big sign and they would start with a song or a speech and then they'd bring you over and start to sell you the product; the dime museum, which P.T. Barnum turned into something much bigger; and the Chautauqua lectures. People don't talk about them as traditional theater spaces but those were places where people who we would call actors existed.

What’s the other play you’ll be looking at?

It’s a very popular musical called In Dahomey. It starred two vaudeville stars, George Walker and Bert Williams. What’s interesting is that as the production traveled from city to city on the East Coast, the producers added songs to suit the local audience.

Why is that noteworthy?

In Dahomey was made before we had what is considered the American musical structure. This commercial production helped make that form. People like to discuss it because it was the first musical written by and starring African Americans to play on Broadway. The aesthetic scene-to-song construction built in the first act was important, but the multiple endings might be early examples of audience feedback changing entertainment products. Each city had different preferences. Boston had its favorite songs, and they were different than Philadelphia, or Baltimore. This is long before we have focus groups or demographics, but they changed based on what they felt the audience wanted to hear.

What is the most meaningful thing students learn about the Harlem Renaissance in your class?

The best thing they learn about is the complexity of Black existence. They also understand something about the tools of cultural production and reproduction. I also give them a lot of historical information that they might forget but the complexity and the humanity stay with them, I think.

Posted: February 26, 2021