May 1823 (200 years ago)
English comedian and actor Charles Mathews ended his tour of the United States. His style of comedic mimicry and improvisation had garnered him a large audience in England, and American audiences equally appreciated his work. Mathew’s typical act included parodies of various British types and manners, employing his sharp ear for accents and imitation. While in the U.S., he built a similar act, satirizing, for example, the Western frontiersman and the uptight Yankee. One evening, after watching an all-Black performance of a Shakespeare tragedy in New York, he noted the use of a slave ballad during the performance. The “African tragedian” soon became a character in his act, as did his use of slave songs and blackface in his performance. He later began to collect slave songs and performed this character back on his English shores. Charles Matthew would die in 1835 at 59 years of age.
May 1923 (100 years ago)
Houston’s new Miller Memorial Outdoor Theatre was inaugurated with a grand performance called Springtime of Our Nation featuring some 2,500 performers. The dedication plaque on the new Greco-Roman style bandstand read, “To the Arts of Music, Poetry, Drama and Oratory, by which the striving spirit of man seeks to interpret the words of God. This theatre of the City of Houston is permanently dedicated.” Formerly the property of entrepreneur Jesse Wright Miller, the bandstand, now located in the sprawling Hermann Park, has since been remodeled into a state-of-the-art proscenium stage and continues to offer free performances to the Houston public at least eight months out of the year.
May 1973 (50 years ago)
The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco provided scholarships earmarked for 10 Asian American students to join the theatre’s summer training program, beginning the Asian American Theatre Workshop. In a release, the theatre stated, “Asian American talent has been virtually untapped for decades, with no professional outlet for growth and development on its own terms. The result is a widely noted scarcity of Asian American performers and playwrights, even in San Francisco, where 17 percent of the population is Asian American.” The scholarship and training enabled the students to take evening courses with director and playwright Frank Chin. The success of the program led to it becoming a year-round endeavor of ACT, and the Asian American Theatre Workshop continued until 1978, training numerous Asian American actors, playwrights, directors, and designers.
May 1988 (35 years ago)
Los Angeles’ East West Players closed its premiere production of Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro’s play Mishima, about the life and controversial death of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. East West Players founder and then-artistic director Mako portrayed the embattled author. Mishima’s homosexuality and devoted following of 100 young men had been shocking to the Japanese public, but it was his failed 1970 coup attack on the Tokyo’s military headquarters and subsequent ritual suicide, or seppuku, that gave his name international attention. The Los Angeles Times review called the production “a serpentine work, stylistically adventurous and alternately fable-like.” The show ran from April to May 1988.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!