February 1857 (165 years ago)
This month, William Wells Brown, the first published African American playwright, began performing public readings of his drama The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom on the abolitionist lecture circuit. Brown was self-educated, having been enslaved for the first 20 years of his life. He escaped from slavery twice and spent many years writing and lecturing in Europe so his daughters could be educated there. While he was abroad, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed in the U.S., making it dangerous for him to return. In 1854, British abolitionists purchased his freedom, and Brown returned with his daughter to the U.S., where he resumed touring and lecturing. In addition to his accomplishments as a speaker and dramatist, Brown is known for publishing the first African American novel, conveying 69 fugitive slaves to safety in Canada, researching and publishing a history of Black soldiers during the American Revolutionary War, and opening a homeopathic medical practice.
February 1892 (130 years ago)
Poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay was born this month. Millay, who insisted on being called Vincent as a child, was known for giving riveting performances of her poetry. After attending Vassar, she moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan and began working with the Provincetown Players, first as an actor. Before long she was writing and directing for the company, which produced her anti-war play Aria da Capo. She was one of four theatre artists to found Cherry Lane Theatre, which has remained a hub of experimental theatre for nearly 100 years and is now the longest continually running Off-Broadway theatre. Millay is also known for her feminist activism and progressive views on sexuality—she was bisexual and lived in an open marriage with her husband, Eugen Van Boissevain. Their former home and gardens in Steepletop, N.Y., are now the Millay Colony, a nonprofit that offers multidisciplinary arts residencies.
February 1927 (95 years ago)
Sidney Poitier died last month, just shy of his 95th birthday on Feb. 20th. Poitier’s contributions to film and political activism are legendary, but he also contributed to watershed moments in theatre history. In 1943, Poitier moved to New York at the age of 16 with the goal of becoming an actor. He was initially rejected by the American Negro Theater because of his Bahamian accent, but after months of perseverance he auditioned again and landed a small role. He originated the role of Lester in Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta for a short run. Soon after, he originated the role of Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Actor in A Play. Ossie Davis eventually replaced Poitier on Broadway, but Poitier reprised the role for the 1961 film. Poitier once said, “Acting isn’t a game of pretend. It’s an exercise in being real.”
February 1967 (55 years ago)
Barbara Garson’s political parody MacBird! opened Off-Broadway this month at the Village Gate Theatre, where it ran for 386 performances, starring Stacy Keach and Rue McClanahan. The play was developed by Garson when she was an undergrad at Berkeley in the ‘60’s. At a rally for the Free Speech Movement, Garson was made a slip of the tongue when referring to the country’s First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson; she meant to compare her to Lady MacBeth but instead said “Lady MacBird.” The idea of an audacious adaptation of Macbeth with LBJ and Lady Bird as the leads came to her in that instant. While satirically skewering members of the Kennedy and Johnson families, the play also implies that MacBird (i.e., LBJ) was responsible for JFK’s assassination. Theatre critic Robert Brustein called it “the most explosive play” of the decade, and scholar Susan Gayle Todd cites many international productions of the play by directors, including Augusto Boal and Joan Littlewood. A film version of the play was in development, but Todd argues that the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June of 1968 squelched enthusiasm for the play’s biting satire, and the movie was never made.
February 1972 (50 years ago)
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first all-Native repertory company in the U.S. Originally named the American Indian Theatre Ensemble (AITE), the company was renamed the Native American Theatre Ensemble (NATE) in 1973. It was founded by Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa–Delaware) at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York, which served as its incubator space. The company’s goals were “expressly aimed at enriching, entertaining, and educating Native American people from all tribal backgrounds.” The first production was Geiogamah’s contemporary play Body Indian, which he wrote while working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The play was coupled with Robert Shorty and Geraldine Keams’s short piece, Na Haaz Zaan, which focused on the Navajo myth of creation. Another stated goal of the ensemble was to combat, eliminate, and replace the “negative and defeating imagery which the media employs to portray Indian people.” Geiogamah is currently a professor in the school of Theatre, Film, and Television at UCLA and a member of the board of Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of American Theatre.
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