In the 1800s, part of the West Village was known as “Little Africa, or less kindly as Coontown,” writes John Strausbaugh in his fascinating new book “The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village.”
"Little Africa also drew free blacks and ‘mulattoes’ who’d come to New York from the West Indies. Often better educated and with more skills than the city’s freed slaves, some of them thrived, within the limits imposed on them. One [William Henry Brown] started America’s first black professional theater company in Greenwich Village in 1821….the African Grove, with an all-black company….Its first full-lengthproduction was Richard III.”
"As other productions followed — Othello, some farces and pantomines, and most controversially Brown’s own The Drama of King Shotaway, about a slave rebellion in the Indies — whites began to join blacks in the audience. They didn’t sit in respectful silence. Black actors performing Shakespeare represented to them an amusing novelty. A newspaper from 1822 reports that ‘the audience was generally of a riotous character, and amused themselves by throwing crackers on the stage, and cracking their jokes with the actors.’
"The seating policy at the African Grove, amazingly, instituted reverse segregation: whites were relegated to the back rows because, as a handbill stated, they didn’t know ‘how to conduct themselves at entertainments for ladies and gentlemen of color.’"
Brown closed down the Grove in 1823, but one of the company’s star actors, Ira Aldridge (shown above, in Titus Andronicus) moved to England, “where he became renowned for his Othello, as well as his Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and Shylock, the latter roles sometimes performed in whiteface makeup.”
More on “The Village,” by John Strausbaugh