The new theater space at NYU’s 181 Mercer Street building sits on the footprint of the seminal African Grove Theatre and will become a living memorial to the Black theater history that transformed American arts and culture.
NYU’s 181 Mercer Street building, opening spring 2023, will become home to a permanent and evolving memorial to the African Grove Theatre, the first Black theater in the country that made history on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets in 1821.
A new theater—built on the footprint of the original—will be named “The African Grove Theatre” and be used for NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ acclaimed Graduate Acting and Design for Stage and Film programs. The space will offer ongoing theatrical performance, historical displays, educational programming, and teaching and learning opportunities to promote the groundbreaking legacy of the original African Grove Theatre as a beacon for Black artists and performers—an impact that still has immense resonance today.
The theater is one of several performance spaces in the Mercer Street building offering state-of-the-art facilities for student productions in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
“The NYU community has its roots in the collective histories of New York City and is proud to call Greenwich Village home. It’s crucial that we make space for the powerful stories and legacies of these Black artists; to celebrate their triumphs and travails, so that it can inspire future generations of theater makers as they continue to experiment, innovate, and elevate artistic expression at NYU and beyond for years to come. As an institution renowned for graduating some of the most visionary artists and cultural leaders of their time, we have a unique opportunity to uplift the local histories and cultural pioneers who laid the groundwork for the evolution of the performing arts from the early 1800s to today,” said NYU President Andrew Hamilton.
About the African Grove Theatre
Widely considered the first Black theater in the country, the African Grove Theatre got its start when William Alexander Brown, a retired steamship steward, started hosting poetry readings, musical performances, and short plays for Black New Yorkers in his backyard at 38 Thomas Street in 1816. The “tea garden” was the only space in New York where Black patrons were allowed to enjoy leisure entertainment.
In 1821, the African Grove Theatre was expanded into a 300-seat theater in the heart of Washington Square on Bleecker and Mercer Streets. The company was known for staging Shakespearean classics performed by Black actors, ballets, comedies, and an original play written by Brown himself (The Drama of King Shotaway), drawing sizable audiences and creating a radical alternative to other American theaters of its time.
“From the very beginning, African Grove productions served as a forum for positive and revolutionary images depicting Black and indigenous life in America. Although it was only open for two years, the African Grove Theatre demonstrated a wide range of Black creative expression and offered a vision of what a national theater could be,” said Michael Dinwiddie, associate professor at NYU Gallatin, theater historian, and co-chair of the Committee to Commemorate the African Grove.
“Despite the pressures of a white mob which closed the theater after only two seasons, the African Grove Theatre and its performers transformed American arts and culture, making an indelible mark on the contemporary musical theater landscape, and raised pertinent questions about audience expectations of Black art that are still relevant today,” he continued.
About the African Grove Theatre at NYU
NYU’s 181 Mercer building will commemorate the groundbreaking achievements of the African Grove Theatre and its company in myriad ways to ensure its legacy will be known to future generations of theater makers, theater artists, and audience members.
Supported by a $1 million donation, the fourth floor theater will be named “The African Grove Theatre” for use by the Graduate Acting Program and Design for Stage and Film Program in their annual season of seven productions. Displays celebrating the history of Black theater in America, the African Grove Theatre, and the achievements of Black actors, both in America and abroad, will provide important historical context and help to educate audiences.
This living archive will also feature a scale model of the original African Grove Theatre, commissioned by Michael Dinwiddie on behalf of the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Furthermore, a group composed of NYU faculty and administrators will be tasked with curating events for the African Grove Theatre, including an annual symposium beginning in the spring of 2023 to convene and reflect on the history of Black theater and culture in New York and beyond. Programming in the theater itself will include a celebratory staged reading of Carlyle Brown’s acclaimed 1988 play, The African Company Presents “Richard III”, directed by Graduate Acting chair, Carl Cofield, and featuring Graduate Acting alumni and current students.
In addition, James Weldon Johnson’s trailblazing 1930 history, Black Manhattan, with a new introduction by NYU faculty member Zadie Smith, will be a featured text of the NYU Reads initiative in 2022-23. Johnson—who was the first African American to teach at New York University, back in 1934—writes significantly about the artistic life of Black Americans in New York, including the African Company. In collaboration with NYU Reads, there will be additional symposia and exhibits to support the reading.
“These memorialization efforts symbolize NYU’s commitment to advancing the Black theater tradition that began with the African Grove Theatre, through the development of ongoing programming and partnerships with NYC-based Black theaters and companies to support and expand transformative theater that challenges, educates, inspires, and entertains,” said Dinwiddie.
Carl Cofield, chair of Graduate Acting, responded to the commemoration: “At NYU Graduate Acting, we have a history of engaging emerging actors into the classical tradition that stretches back more than a half-a-century. We have endeavored to create a fertile and robust environment for actors of color to explore both their own identities and to explore other worlds, other cultures, other constructs of language and presentation. In this regard, we are continuing in the adventuresome tradition of the African Grove Theatre, whose imagination and artistry knew no bounds. One has only to look at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s summer programming over the last three seasons: In 2020, they featured our alumnus André Holland as Richard II; last summer, seven alumni, including Susan Kelechi Watson, appeared in the new adaptation of Merry Wives, and this summer, alumna Danai Gurira will grace the Delacorte Stage as Richard III. This new theater space at 181 Mercer will provide the training ground for our actors and we are honored that they will perform on the same land that once hosted the inimitable Ira Aldridge and James Hewlett,” he continued.
Susan Hilferty, chair of Design for Stage and Film, added: “From their resourcefulness in creating imaginative costumes to their ability to transform themselves and their surroundings, the African Grove company sparked a tradition of creativity in storytelling that permeates theater today. It’s a tradition we are proud to continue. Our program is renowned for instilling a disciplined practice of craft, a profound respect for the identities of the stories and characters we explore, and a longstanding production partnership with Grad Acting that gives our designers the opportunity to develop their skills in new and imaginative ways. It’s a privilege that our costume, set, and lighting design students can learn from this history and in the spirit of the African Grove Theatre, innovate the craft well into the future.”
The African Grove Theatre and memorialization efforts at 181 Mercer Street build upon NYU’s ongoing commitment to celebrating and preserving this community history and shedding light on the underrepresented histories that shape our current realities. The Gallatin Galleries recently hosted an exhibition, Transformation! African American Theater 1821-1921 and Beyond, From the African Grove Theatre to Shuffle Along, that explored one hundred years of Black theater history through archival material and reproductions, performances, and panel events. NYU Steinhardt’s Art and Education program designed a self-guided walking tour for all incoming students to learn about the invisible history of resistance and resilience by marginalized groups through specific sites, including the African Grove Theatre.
“New York University is observing a long-awaited and much-needed recognition of the role of Black culture in the larger arc of American history, for the African Grove is an essential part of our theatrical tradition that must be recognized so that it may be celebrated. From Black Gotham walking tours and historical tributes to Lower Manhattan’s past to the efforts of our neighbor to the south, the Tenement Museum, in its new initiative “Reclaiming Black Spaces,” NYU also plays an important role in honoring the history that underpins our vibrant campus,” said Laurence Maslon, arts professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, associate chair of the Graduate Acting program, theater historian, and co-chair of the Committee to Commemorate the African Grove.
Further announcements regarding collaborations between NYU and New York City-based Black theater groups and arts practitioners will be made during a ribbon-cutting event to officially open the space in fall 2022.