February 1823 (200 years ago)
In New Orleans, Louisiana, a fight broke out at the front doors of the Théâtre d’Orléans which resulted in the stabbing of Beebe, a Creole doormen, at the hand of an English actor. The murder was the unfortunate climax of a contentious relationship between the long-established French theatrical companies and the new English companies in the Crecent City. When English actor and entrepreneur James H. Caldwell arrived in the winter of 1819 with his small company of actors, he rented the French theatre company’s building a few nights a week for performances of British works. Eventually, Caldwell’s company performed in the theatre many more nights a week than the French company, causing much tension. Almost immediately following the death of Beebe, Caldwell’s company moved out of the theatre established a new playhouse on Camp Street, called the American Theatre, the first English-speaking theatre in the area. Six months after the American Theatre opened, Théâtre d’Orléans shuttered for good.
February 1903 (120 years ago)
In Dahomey, starring Bert Williams and George Walker, took the New York Theatre stage on Feb. 18, 1903. The work was the first full-length musical written by Black artists—with a book by Jesse A. Shipp, lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and music by Will Marion Cook—to play a Broadway theatre. The plot concerns two con men (Williams and Walker) playing a long con on the West African people of Dahomey. The work critiqued colonialism, yet held on to some of the trappings of minstrelsy and vaudeville through improvisation and the use of blackface. It is, however, considered to have marked a step forward in both representation and Black artistic autonomy. The show ran a complete Broadway season before embarking on a U.K. tour, making it also the first Black American musical to tour the world.
February 1933 (90 years ago)
A small group gathered at the YWCA in York, Pa., to form a new organization, the York Little Theatre. The next year, the tight-knit community theatre hired its first director, J.F. Foster, and officially became a not-for-profit organization. In its early years, amid the Great Depression, women played an important part in building and designing works for the theatre. Eventually, the theatre would obtain their first theatrical space 1949, taking over an old movie house. In 2016, the York Little Theatre changed its name to the Belmont Theatre, honoring the street that bears that same name and the community that has sustained its work to this day.
February 2008 (15 years ago)
Following a successful run at Berkley Repertory Theatre and the Public Theater in New York, Passing Strange opened at the Belasco Theatre on Feb. 28. The rock musical explores the life of a Black artist simply called Youth as he finds himself within and apart from his conservative upbringing and journeys across Europe exploring love, sex, and music. The rollickingly funny and lyrical journey was met with praise from New York critics and audiences, garnering seven Tony award nominations, including four for Stew—the star, conceiver, and composer/lyricist—and two for his collaborator Heidi Rodewald.
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