The Federal Theater Project in Harlem

29 Mar

During the Great Depression as many as one in four people were unemployed. To combat this Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA, later renamed Works Projects Administration, had many divisions including the Federal Writers’ Project and the Federal Theater Project and helped creat jobs for writers, artists, and actors during the Great Depression. These two programs were highly successful and helped nourish the talents of many writers, actors, and directors. The Federal Writers’ Project employed many writers who went on to national success including Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and John Cheever, May Swenson, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.

The Federal Writers’ Project conducted thousands of interviews with Americans gathering stories and oral histories. The original plan was to gather these oral histories into a large anthology. World War II and increasing political pressure against the WPA in the late 1930s put a halt to this project. Fortunately, these interviews are housed at the Library of Congress as part of theirAmerican Life Histories Project.

The Federal Theater Project was also an initiative of the WPA and included the Negro Theatre Project (NTP). In 1936 the Negro Theater Project produced a groundbreaking version of Macbeth in Harlem. The Henry Hampton Collection contains images relating to this production as part of The Great Depression series. Also known as the Voodoo Macbeth the play was an ambitious modern production with an all African American cast. Theater director John Houseman hired Orson Welles, who was twenty years old at that time, to direct the play.

Poster for the Negro Theatre Project's production of "Macbeth"

Poster for the Negro Theatre Project’s production of “Macbeth”

Welles moved the setting from Scotland to Haiti  play set in the court of King Henri Christophe. The Celtic witches became voodoo “witch doctors,” and Welles added the musical element of drums to the production. During the rehearsals, Welles and the Federal Theater Project were suspected of making the play into a comedy or burlesque of Shakespeare and the production was picketed by the Harlem Communists. In another altercation a man attempted to slash Welles’ face with a razor but was stopped by boxer Canada Lee, who was with Welles at the time. In the end, the play opened on April 14, 1936 to a packed house.

Opening night of the Federal Theater Project's Macbeth, Harlem, New York.

Opening night of the Negro Theater Project’s “Macbeth,” Harlem, New York.

With highly stylized sets, costumes, and all African American cast, the play was one of the Federal Theater Project’s biggest success.


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