165 YEARS AGO (1853)
Performer Lola Montez, born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland, makes her Pacific Coast debut in the United States with a performance in San Francisco of her autobiographical piece, Lola Montez in Bavaria. The piece will be widely derided; according to Montez biographer Amanda Darling, for years the production will be “regarded as the worst ever to grace San Francisco’s boards.” Known for her scandalously mysterious reputation throughout Europe, despite the unfavorable reception Montez will generate interest from U.S. audiences by presenting international exoticism intertwined with American populism.
145 YEARS AGO (1873)
African-American actor Morgan Smith, who left the U.S. seven years earlier, appears at the Surrey Theatre in London in Richard III, Othello (with his wife as Desdemona), Dred, and The Slave. In a review of The Slave, one critic observes that Smith had a “good reading, unexaggerated action, a clear powerful voice, a correct memory, and an intelligent apprehension of dramatic requirements.”
140 YEARS AGO (1878)
E.M. Rector’s Servitude and Freedom; or, The Underground Railroad, a play in 3 acts premieres with an all-black cast in Chicago. Just shy of a decade after the end of the Civil War, Rector’s script addresses the struggles of being an African American living through the institution of slavery and the aftershocks of its abolition.
135 YEARS AGO (1883)
Baltimore’s Hurle Bavardo becomes one of the first professional black actors to achieve media attention when he appears on the front page of the New York Dramatic News and Society Journal, costumed as Othello. The story reports that Bavardo has made a study of Shakespeare and intends to give public readings and recitals. Two years earlier, Bavardo had made his acting debut at Chickering Hall in New York City.
120 YEARS AGO (1898)
A San Antonio newspaper, La Fe Católica, reports that the Compañía Dramática Solsona begins performing every Sunday at the Salón San Fernando. The Solsana company will continue the weekly engagement for at least eight more years. The repertoire includes melodramatic and historical works; by 1904 they’ll begin to include plays by local San Antonians.
105 YEARS AGO (1913)
The Ben Greet Players begin their 15-week Chautauqua circuit tour near Albany, Ga., with two plays in their repertoire: The Comedy of Errors and She Stoops to Conquer. Though many of the rural churchgoing audiences they will perform for reportedly believe theatre to be the work of the devil, the players win over reluctant audiences, and their 15-week run will be considered a significant success.
80 YEARS AGO (1938)
Langston Hughes’s one-act play Angelo Herndon Jones is staged by the Harlem Suitcase Theatre after being rejected by the Cleveland Federal Theatre Project, where actresses apparently refused to play the roles of two prostitutes. The theatre’s “Constitution” says the group fills a “long-felt need…for a permanent repertory group presenting plays dealing with the lives, problems, and hopes of the Negro people.”
80 YEARS AGO (1938)
One-Third of a Nation opens at the Seattle Federal Theatre Project after running for several months in NYC. One-Third of a Nation is one of several Living Newspaper plays produced by the FTP that address social issues in the U.S. at the time, with One-Third of a Nation focusing specifically on issues of housing and slums. The show will continue to run through July, becoming the longest-running production for the Seattle FTP.
25 YEARS AGO (1993)
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, the first part of Tony Kushner’s Gay Fantasia on National Themes, makes its Broadway debut, following development and productions at New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan, the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. The play will win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the production will receive Tonys for best play, direction of a play (George C. Wolfe), actor in a play (Ron Leibman), and featured actor in a play (Stephen Spinella).
15 YEARS AGO (2003)
Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife, based on the autobiography of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who lived through Nazi Germany, begins its Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons. Later in the year, the production will transfer to Broadway, and the piece will earn the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the best play Tony, as well as a best actor in a play Tony for the show’s sole performer, Jefferson Mays.