230 YEARS AGO (1788)
John Henry and Lewis Hallam Jr., actor and manager, respectively, of the Old American Company, petition the Philadelphia Assembly of the Continental Congress to repeal Pennsylvania’s anti-theatre laws. The examining committee reports to the full Assembly that the stage is “a great mart of genius,” and a “natural and necessary concomitant of our independence.” Henry and Hallam’s case is likely helped by the support of General George Washington.
195 YEARS AGO (1823)
James Hewlett, leading actor of the African Company, performs a one-man “At Home” show at the African Theatre in New York City while the company is on tour in Albany, N.Y., after a year of forced relocations and violent riots against the all-black company and its performances of Shakespeare. “Hewlett at Home” has him showing off his acting, singing, and dancing talents, including sword fights, magic tricks, and a jig.
155 YEARS AGO (1863)
The three Waldron daughters, transplants from New England dubbed Charleston, S.C.’s “Queen Sisters,” tour John Hill Hewitt’s play The Vivandiere to enthusiastic response. The play’s protagonist exemplifies a new character type, “The heroine of Dixie,” a white Southern woman who supports the Confederacy, even to the point of taking on traditionally masculine roles. The type is popularized in Southern nationalist plays during the Civil War.
140 YEARS AGO (1878)
Pedro Castillo y Pellón returns to Tucson, Ariz., to organize the town’s first group of amateur actors into the Teatro Recreo. Three years prior, Pellón performed in Tucson as the lead comic actor of the touring Compañía Dramática Española de José Pérez García, which established his reputation. In May, he and the members of Teatro Recreo will mount Cada cual con su razón (“Each with his reason”) by the famous Spanish poet José Zorilla.
75 YEARS AGO (1943)
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! opens on Broadway, introducing a new level of integration of songs, dances, and spectacle into musical theatre storytelling. Of particular note is Agnes de Mille’s choreography, which employs theatrical ballet and folk dance forms. Though musicals had integrated elements as far as back 1910, Oklahoma! will be viewed as the work which completes the development of the integrated musical.
65 YEARS AGO (1953)
Ossie Davis’s first full-length play, The Big Deal, is produced at the Yugoslav Hall in NYC. The play, which appeared a year earlier at the Elks Community Theatre (Negro Arts Players) as Alice in Wonder, depicts a socially conscious black TV producer during the McCarthy era who must choose between his friends and his job. Davis will have a successful theatre and film career a performer, director, writer, producer, and activist until his death in 2005.
40 YEARS AGO (1978)
The Old Globe of San Diego, Calif., is destroyed by an arsonist’s fire after 43 years of operation. Commentators note that the conflagration comes almost exactly 365 years after London’s original Globe Theatre suffered a similar fate. San Diego’s Globe, originally built as a temporary attraction for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, will be be replaced by a wooden outdoor stage designed by Richard Hay a mere 100 days after the blaze.
30 YEARS AGO (1988)
M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang opens on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (after bowing at Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre). The play is inspired by the true story of a French diplomat’s affair with a young male Chinese opera singer, whom he believed to be a woman. The production, directed by John Dexter and originally starring John Lithgow and BD Wong, will run for more than 700 performances and win the Tonys for best play, best featured actor in a play (Wong), and best direction of a play.