Today in Theatre History: AMERICAN NEGRO THEATRE, 1940

Scene from the American Negro Theatre production of ”On Strivers Row,” 1946, with Harry Belafonte.  (Photographs and Prints Division Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

A scene from the 1946 American Negro Theatre production of On Strivers Row by Abram Hill, with Harry Belafonte (seated).  The play was a satirical comedy of manners that dealt with “the follies of both social climbing and subtle racism among African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance.”  (Photographs and Prints Division Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Today in theatre history–June 5, 1940–the American Negro Theatre was formed in Harlem.  As an outgrowth of the “Negro Unit” of the Federal Theatre Project, the primary goal of the ANT was to produce high quality productions of original plays that offered an honest portrayal of the life and concerns of the African-American community, and that “utilized its resources to develop racial pride in the theatre, rather than racial apathy.”  Abram Hill was named Artistic Director and also served as the company’s resident playwright.  Other leading members included Frederick O’Neal (assistant chairman, company manager) and John O’Shaughnessy.  Perry Watkins, Charles Sebree, and Roger Furman worked as set designers while George Lewis was the company’s lighting designer and technician.  For the first five years, the company operated out of the basement of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library until it was forced to move to the Elks Club on 126th Street and then to a loft in 125th Street.  They produced 19 plays during that time–12 of them originals–including one show, Anna Lucasta by Phillip Yordan, that moved to Broadway in 1944 and ran f0r two years, closing after 957 performances.  But by the early 1950s, with funding drying up, the company’s principal artists had moved on and the ANT finally folded.  Its influence on American theatre, however, was indelible.  Among the many African-American artists the company trained were Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Frederick O’Neal, Alice Childress, Maxwell Granville, Hilda Simms, Earle Hyman, Clarice Taylor, Gordon Heath, Isabel Sanford, Roger Furman, and Rosetta LeNoire.  Not a bad track record for a company that perpetually lacked sufficient funding and billed itself initially as a “community theatre.”

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