Scene from Anna Lucasta
Photography by Fred Fehl,
THE AMERICAN NEGRO THEATER
1940-1949 | The New York Public Library at 135th Street & Lenox Avenue
The American Negro Theater was committed to “breaking down the barriers of black participation in the theater, to portraying Negro life as they honestly saw it, and to filling the gap of a black theater which did not exist.”
Artists whose careers were launched or enhanced by the American Negro Theater (ANT) read like a “Who’s Who” of black theater in Harlem and everywhere else: Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Clarice Taylor, Juanita Moore, Alice Childress, Fred O’Neal, Helen Martin, Hilda Simms, Gertrude Jeannette, Roger Furman and Abram Hill.
On June 5, 1940 the legendary American Negro Theater was founded. Abram Hill, a writer from the Rose McClendon Players best known for his play, On Strivers Row, and actor Fred O’Neal organized the theater in the basement of the public library on Harlem’s 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. Hill said, “We are trying to discover something that could be called the art of repertory.” Their first production, Natural Man by Theodore Browne, was based on the legend of John Henry. Other plays included Henri Christopher, with O’Neal in the title role, Garden of Time by Owen Dodson and Work Hard by Hill.
The ANT taught the craft of acting, directing, staging, and provided opportunities for Black artists, directors, technicians, and delivered entertainment to Harlemites that was not as available on the downtown stages. The mission statement of the ANT was to “break down the barriers of black participation in the theater, to portray Negro life as they honestly saw it, and to fill the gap of a black theater which did not exist.”
According to Roger Furman, the ANT members were committed financially in sharing the expenses as well as the profits. ANT members who were employed in other theatrical productions and received a salary gave 2% of their salary back to ANT. Most of the ANT actors received no salary but were committed to the company. Between 1940 and 1949, ANT produced 19 plays including 12 original scripts. Actor/writer Loften Mitchell described the work of ANT, “There was a great social revolution underway. The plays of protest, the plays of social meaning and this was the kind of theater we were trying to develop. We were trying to say something. We were trying to say it within the black media, with the rhythm and quality of excitement.”
ANT’s best known presentation was Anna Lucasta, which was produced in 1944 and eventually moved to Broadway for three years and 957 performances. Many strongly believe that the unexpected success of the play was the stick of dynamite that blew ANT up. “All of a sudden too many black theater people wanted to drop everything and run to Broadway,” says Gertrude Jeannette. “Anna Lucasta put ANT on the map and took it off the map.”
According to Miss Jeannette, the company closed officially in 1949. She revived it briefly under the same name in 1950 before moving on to establish her own theater company.
It is important that today’s Harlem theaters study well, both the good and the bad, that can be garnered from the experiences of the American Negro Theater.