For the price of 25 cents – or, for a nicer seat, 50 cents – the African Theater entertained hundreds of black New Yorkers with both classic and original works, alongside operas and ballets. He staged an “Othello” the following month; other offers, less well known today, included “Tom and Jerry; Or, Life in London ”; “The poor soldier”; and “Obi; Or, three-fingered Jack.
Brown himself wrote “The Drama of King Shotaway”, an account of a black Caribbean uprising which is considered the first play written by a black author although the text has been lost in history.
Lost scripts, vague details and the sudden end of a theater – this is essentially a ghost tale. Even though African theater became so popular that white audiences began to attend as well, Brown faced an uphill battle for the entire existence of the company.
When he dared to pit himself against a nearby white theater, each featuring rival Shakespeare productions, he was harassed by police and his theater raided. Its performers were attacked. He changed the name of the theater and moved it around several times, opening and closing and reopening until the financial situation dried up.
When a yellow fever epidemic hit New York City, Brown’s audience dissipated; in October 1822, the National Advocate, a newspaper, announced that the theater was closing because of the fever. Hewlett, the company’s main performer, left a few months later.
It is not clear what happened to Brown, and when exactly the theater closed for good. The last known poster for an African theatrical production was dated June 1823.
The story of Brown and African theater is too often forgotten in the larger history of American theater. Two modern pieces, however – “The African Company Presents Richard the Third” by Carlyle Brown and “Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti – have renewed attention to this fascinating chapter.