On this day in theatre history (August 10, 1942) one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, Paul Robeson, first performed what would eventually be recognized as among the greatest roles of his career: Othell0. Directed by the legendary Margaret Webster with Jose Ferrer as Iago and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, the production opened at the Brattle Street Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, becoming an instant hit. The show soon moved to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, where it ran an astounding 296 performances (from October 19, 1943 to July 1, 1944), setting the record for the longest run of any Shakespeare play on Broadway–a record that remains unbroken to this day.
Most histories credit Robeson with being the first African-American to perform Othello on a professional American stage. But this may not be the case. While Robeson gets the credit, it’s likely that James Hewlett earned the honor back in 1821 while a leading actor with the African Grove Theatre in New York City. The evidence is not entirely clear–Odell, for instance, fails to mention Hewitt in the role while acknowledging him as a popular Shakespearean actor. But other secondary sources appear to confirm Hewlett’s singular achievement as the country’s first African-American Othello. Whether the African Grove qualifies as a fully professional theatre is debatable, of course, but in no way diminishes its importance to American history or the significance of Hewlett’s performance. And Hewlett as Othello must have been a remarkable experience for any 19th century audience–as impressive and bold, I would guess, as Robeson’s groundbreaking work in the 20th century.