420 Years Ago (1598)
The first recorded performance of a European play in North America takes place outside present-day El Paso, Texas. During a Spanish colonial expedition led by Juan de Oñate y Salazar, soldiers stage a piece celebrating Spain’s efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The following January, Oñate will orchestrate one of the worst slaughters of Native people in the Americas, murdering more than 800 of the Acoma Pueblo.
140 Years Ago (1878)
Richard III, with an all-black cast featuring Benjamin J. Ford in the title role, opens at the Lyric Theatre in New York City. Six years later, Ford will mount an all-black staging of Othello, creating the Astor Place Company of Colored Tragedians. During the 1880s, the troupe will be the most prominent black company on the theatrical scene, with the decade marking an increase in dramatic activity among African Americans.
135 Years Ago (1883)
Henrietta Vinton Davis makes her professional debut as a public reciter at Marini’s Hall in Washington, D.C. Advertisements for the recital call Davis “the first lady of her race to publicly essay a debut in Shakespeare and other legitimate characters.” At the recital she is introduced by Frederick Douglass; like Douglass, Davis will go on to make significant political contributions to the ongoing struggle for racial equality.
120 Years Ago (1898)
Broadway’s first full-length musical comedy written, directed, performed, and produced by African Americans, Bob Cole and Billy Johnson’s A Trip to Coontown—a show that offers its overwhelmingly white audience familiar minstrel stereotypes—opens at the Third Avenue Theatre. Following unpleasant business dealings with several white producers and managers, Cole created an all-black production company for the play.
115 Years Ago (1903)
The Baker Players come from Portland, Ore., to play for several months at the Seattle Theatre, the second season of the theatre constructed as fortunes rose with the 1897 Gold Rush. The single-season run of the Manhattan Company, which opened the venue, highlighted the conflict between resident stock companies and traveling road shows, particularly in the West, and paved the way for other stock companies.
80 Years Ago (1938)
The Federal Theatre Project’s Spirochete, part of an effort to raise awareness about syphilis, is performed in Chicago. The show will go on to run in Seattle, where, thanks in part to a campaign that engages community groups and involves more than 35,000 flyers, it will become one of the Seattle FTP’s biggest hits and help bring about heightened social and legislative attention to the public health crisis of this sexually communicable disease.
50 Years Ago (1968)
The final production of the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center’s first season opens: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Malcolm Black and featuring a cast of 26 young people. The organization, founded in 1966 by C. Bernard Jackson with grant monies in the wake of the Watts riots, will nurture the careers of numerous artists and help other organizations develop, like El Teatro Campesino and East West Players.
40 Years Ago (1978)
Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July opens at the Circle Repertory Company, a New York company Wilson co-founded. The play, the final installment in the scribe’s so-called Talley Trilogy, is set in Wilson’s hometown, Lebanon, Mo., against a backdrop of disillusionment stemming from the Vietnam War, and the main character, like Wilson, is gay. The piece’s 1980 Broadway run will earn a best featured actress in a play Tony for Swoosie Kurtz.