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Frank Langella in "The Devils" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1967. (Center Theatre Group)

This Month in Theatre History

From the first American stage comedy to NYC’s ban on burlesque and the launch of the Mark Taper Forum, April was showered with noteworthy theatrical events.

250 YEARS AGO (1767)
To win over American audiences, the London Company changes its name to the American Company and stages The Prince of Parthia in Philadelphia, making Thomas Godfrey the first American-born playwright to be produced by a professional company in North America. The troupe continues employing British actors and performing an almost entirely British repertoire, though the new moniker does help with its favorability among the colonists.

230 YEARS AGO (1787)
The first professional production of a comedy written by an American citizen premieres at the John Street Theatre in New York City. The piece is The Contrast, a comedy by Royall Tyler that satirizes differences between American and European culture. The play will be remembered for the introduction of the Yankee stock character.

190 YEARS AGO (1827)
The Michigan Territorial Legislature approves an act that will make puppet shows, wire dancing, tumbling, juggling, and sleight of hand in exchange for money a punishable offence by a fine of $10 to $20. The act, created “for the prevention of immoral practices,” will be enforced until 1837, when Michigan officially joins the union as a state, and the legislation will not appear among any of the state laws.

100 YEARS AGO (1917)
After its premiere the previous year in Washington, D.C., Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel moves to New York City for a showing at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Grimké, who is mixed-race, queer, and a prominent abolitionist and writer, will go on to be instrumental in the development of the Harlem Renaissance. Rachel will be part of an effort by the NAACP to promote the organization’s idea of “racial uplift.” The critically acclaimed play will spark a national debate, with some arguing that black theatre should promote a certain anti-racist agenda. Grimké herself will state the play’s political intentions: to move white women to organize against lynching.

80 YEARS AGO (1937)
The New York City burlesque ban begins when the Burly Amusement Company, which runs Abe Minsky’s Gotham Theatre in Harlem, is found guilty of “giving an indecent performance” the previous August. According to The New York Times, “The evidence was that five young women went through ‘strip-tease’ acts to the accompaniment of soft music and softer lights.” Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia will accuse burlesque performance of corrupting morals in New York, and many burlesque licenses will be revoked and refused for renewal, including venues credited with helping launch the careers of comics such as Abbott and Costello and stars such as Gypsy Rose Lee.

65 YEARS AGO (1952)
Elia Kazan testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee and “names names” of several theatre artists linked to communist activity, including playwright Clifford Odets. Kazan’s testimony will effectively end the career of the named artists and will haunt Kazan for the rest of his life: When he receives an honorary Oscar in 1999, many actors at the event will refuse to applaud.

50 YEARS AGO (1967)
Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of Center Theatre Group, opens the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles with a staging of John Whiting’s The Devils, starring a young Frank Langella. The play—based on Aldous Huxley’s novel about a priest and an allegedly possessed nun in 17th-century France, and which has no shortage of sexuality or violence—will lead California Gov. Ronald Reagan to leave during the performance.

40 YEARS AGO (1977)
Theatre historian Errol Hill gives a lecture on black Shakespearean actors at the Pratt Institute in NYC, which becomes the impetus for Hill’s volume Shakespeare in Sable, considered the first book about black Shakespearean performers. Among other achievements, Hill will go on to coauthor A History of African American Theatre, and he’ll pen 83 entries in The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre.

25 YEARS AGO (1992)
El Teatro Misión in San Francisco hosts the world premiere of Cherríe Moraga’s play Heroes and Saints, produced by Brava! for Women in the Arts and directed by Albert Takazauckas. The piece’s intricate code-switching from English to Spanish demands that subsequent productions not translate the piece into one language or the other, making this play uniquely suited to Chicano audiences.

A version of this piece appears in American Theatre’s April ’17 issue.

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