Thursday, April 2, 2015

William Alexander Brown's Dream - The First African-American Theatrical Company

At the reception and dinner held in honor of Ishmael Reed on March 21st, I had the pleasure of meeting Florence Alexis, Special Advisor to the President of France's National Committee for the Remembrance and History of Slavery (Comité National pour la Memoire et l'Histoire de l'Esclavage - CNMHE).

Florence Alexis and Monique Y. Wells
© Discover Paris!

Florence explained to me in great detail the work that the committee does. Among its responsibilities, it is charged to make proposals and recommendations to the Prime Minister and members of the Government on:
  • commemorations
  • national or international events related to the history of trafficking, slavery and its abolition
  • identification of and networking with memorial sites, institutions, museums, interpretive centers and research facilities related to these topics, including sites located abroad.

On Monday, March 30, CNMHE sponsored a presentation that focused on a little-known element of African-American history - the first African-American theatrical troupe, called the African Company, created in New York City by William Alexander Brown. The event was held in the Salle Félix Eboué at the Ministère des Outre-Mer (Ministry of Overseas Territories) in the 7th arrondissement.

The speaker for the evening was Gerty Dambury, theater director, award-winning writer, and author of the book entitled Le Rêve de William Alexander Brown (William Alexander Brown's Dream).

Gerty Dambury
© Discover Paris!

The evening began with brief statements by the committee's president, Myriam Cottias, and the general secretary, Angèle Louviers, followed by an introduction of the speaker.

From left to right: Florence Alexis, Gerty Dambury, Myriam Cottias,
and Angèle Louviers
© Discover Paris!

Drawing on material from her book, Dambury presented the history of the African Company to an enraptured audience, explaining that slavery was legal in New York at the time the group was formed in 1821.

Full house
© Discover Paris!

William Alexander Brown was born in Saint Vincent, a Caribbean island with French and British colonial history. He founded the company with James Hewlett, who, according to Dambury, was probably born in Nassau, Bahamas. Both men were free blacks at a time when New York was incrementally freeing slaves.

Dambury explained that Brown created a club, which he called the African Grove, in his home as a place where free blacks could drink and socialize. When it was shut down by New York City authorities, he and Hewlett created the African Company at the same address in 1821. The theater troupe frequently performed adaptations of Shakespearean plays, whose representations attracted a mixed audience of whites and blacks.

The African Company moved several times during its brief existence (1821 - 1823), and was eventually ransacked by white racists who gained entry by purchasing tickets to attend a show.

No images of William Alexander Brown are known to exist, but an engraving of Hewlett portraying Richard III survives the period.

James Hewlett as Richard III
Theatrical Portrait Prints (Visual Works) of Men (TCS 44), Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

(Dambury's book includes her French translation of a play written by American playwright Carlyle Brown about the African Company's staging of the Shakespearean play Richard III.)

Dambury noted that William Alexander Brown was the author of the first African-American play, The Drama of King Shotaway, which tells the story of the Carib revolt against the British that took place on the island of Saint Vincent in 1795. She also stated that Ira Aldridge, an African American who rose to prominence in Europe as a celebrated Shakespearean actor, got his start at the African Company.

Coming in April, the CNMHE is planning the first "Memory Month" for slavery and the fight for equality. It will take place from April 27 through June 10, 2015. Information (in French) about event will be posted on the organization’s Web site: http://www.cnmhe.fr/.

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