A new performance space at New York University will be named “The African Grove Theater” in honor of the African Theater, a historic New York production company and venue widely considered to be the first Black theater in the United States, the university announced on Wednesday.
Supported by a $1 million donation, the theater is on the fourth floor of a new multipurpose educational building at 181 Mercer Street that will open in spring 2023. It also will house the graduate acting and design programs for stage and film of the university’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Where there was once merely a plaque with a brief history of the theater, there will be space to host theatrical performances, lobby displays, educational seminars and an annual symposium on the history of Black theater and culture.
“This theater wasn’t ‘somewhere downtown’; it was on our campus,” said Laurence Maslon, an arts professor at N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts who is also a theater historian and co-chair of a university Committee to Commemorate the African Grove. “It has been part of our DNA for over 200 years.”
“Felicitous is the word I keep coming back to,” he added.
The original African Theater was started in 1816 by William Alexander Brown, a retired ship steward who started hosting music, poetry and short plays for Black New Yorkers in his backyard at 38 Thomas Street. The entertainment “tea garden” became known as the African Grove, one of the few spaces where Black patrons could enjoy leisure arts.
In 1821, the theater moved to Bleecker and Mercer Streets — where the new performance space will stand next spring — expanding to a 300-seat venue known for staging operas, ballets and Shakespearean classics alongside original work, initially performed by Black performers for Black audiences and, later, integrated audiences.
The original venture was not entirely peaceful. The theater faced harassment from white rivals and police raids. A yellow fever epidemic further ravaged the theater, which closed two years later. The last known playbill for an African Theater production was dated June 1823.
The new theater will be a “space where we celebrate another tradition in the culture of New York City that has often been disregarded and overlooked and not understood,” said Michael Dinwiddie, an associate professor at N.Y.U.’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, who is also a theater historian and co-chair of the Committee to Commemorate the African Grove. “This was a theater that in its early time, was really creating a model for what the American theater could be. And that’s what we want the modern African Grove Theater to be.”
Dinwiddie said he was excited “to see what happens culturally” for students who learn about the theater and understand that they are performing in a place that is “historic and sacred and new, at the same time.”