Scene from Swing Mikado
Photograph by Swisher, Schomburg Collection
WPA FEDERAL THEATRE PROJECT HARLEM UNIT
1935-1939 | Performed at Lafayette Theater,132nd Street & Seventh Avenue
The experience obtained in the Federal Theatre Project laid the groundwork for the black theaters in the 1940s and 1950s in Harlem and around the country.
The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration in 1935 to provide work on a national level for unemployed professionals in theater during the Great Depression following the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
The best known and most active division was the New York Negro Unit based in Harlem.
By February of 1936, the Harlem FTP was the largest and most active black division. The Harlem unit was divided into two groups: one group produced adaptations of classic plays and the other group plays by and about blacks.
Orson Welles headed Harlem’s classic unit. Its most famous and popular presentation was Macbeth, directed by Welles and set in Haiti. Jack Carter played Macbeth, Edna Thomas was Lady Macbeth and Canada Lee was Banquo. The Asadata Dafora Dancers and Drummers and a cast of 137 participated in this epic production. When Macbeth opened on May 14, 1936 at the Lafayette Theater on 132nd Street and 7th Avenue, the local community came out in large numbers. The play was also critically well received.
With John Houseman as director, the company presented a series of plays that grabbed the attention of theater-goers in Harlem and some members of the downtown press. Notable among the black plays were Walk Together Chillun by Frank Wilson, The Conjur Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher, Run, Little Chillun by Hall Johnson, The Case of Philip Lawrence by George McEntee and Noah by Andre Obey.
The theater’s longest running drama was Haiti, starring Canada Lee, which ran for 180 performances in 4 years.
The FTP ended in 1939. In 4 years, thousands of blacks were trained in stage direction, design, lighting, acting, playwriting, costuming and speech. The experience obtained in the FTP laid the ground work for the black theaters in the 1940s and 1950s in Harlem and around the country.