[Editor’s note] In 2018, when Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s Hamlet, set in West Africa and directed by Simon Godwin, arrived at the Kennedy Center, Paapa Essiedu played the title role to unanimous praise.
According to Lee Seymour of Forbes, it was the first time the RSC had cast a black actor in the role, considered one of the stage’s greatest challenges.
For years, Washington theatre companies have been casting black actors in roles originally written for white actors. But it was not always so.
Blair A. Ruble takes you back to 1951, when an African American company staged Hamlet in segregated Washington, DC.
In 1919, Howard University faculty members Thomas Montgomery Gregory and Ernest Just established the Howard Players as the first step towards building a National Negro Theatre at the university modeled after the Irish National Theatre in Dublin. Gregory envisioned using an intensified African American presence on stage to support a heightened African American presence in society.
The entrepreneurial Gregory gathered a distinguished circle of supporters – including George Pierce Baker, Robert Benchley, Haywood Broun, W. E. B. Du Bois, Samuel L. Eliot, Frederick H.. Koch Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, and Ridgeley Torrence– and began producing works in conjunction with new drama curriculum in the classrooms. Early successes included an evening of drama performed for the Delegates to the 1921 Washington Naval Conference — including H.G. Wells, Henry Nevinson, and Pierre Combret de Lanux — as well as renowned productions of O’Neill’s Emperor Jones featuring the legendary Charles S. Gilpin in the starring role.
… journalists constantly asked whether such a play [Hamlet] was too ambitious for African American actors.
Over the next century, the Players would offer many memorable productions as Howard faculty and artists expanded the theater’s reach. The Players developed strong ties with leading writers in the Washington African American community such as Willis Richardson, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Among those who contributed to the group’s success include no less than nine figures now honored on United States postal stamps: Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Ernest E. Just, Carter G. Woodson and Alain LeRoy Locke (who lead the Players for much of his career on the university’s faculty.
Among the Players’ most memorable performances transpired on several warm evenings during July, 1951. The 1950s were a time of change for Howard University, and for African American theater. The Howard Players were central to the era’s African American theatrical development. The Howard Players – the University’s top-flight dramatic company — were hardly marginal to many of the era’s African American theatrical developments. Major figures in late twentieth century American theater such as Robert Hooks, Ossie Davis, Debbie Allen, and Phylicia Rashad made their way through the Howard drama program during these years. Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) studied theater history and philosophy at Howard in the early 1950s. In 1955, The Players produced the first performance of James Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner.
Howard Drama Department Chair Owen Dodson admired the work of a teenage actor with New York’s American Negro Theater, Earle Hyman. Dodson seized on the opportunity presented by a scheduled Summer School production to invite Hyman to take a turn with the Howard Players in a production of Hamlet.
Dodson pulled out all the stops for the production. He hired David Amram, then a student at George Washington University, to write a ground-breaking musical score for the performance. Amram, who would become one of the leading American composers of the late twentieth century, was performing with top-flight jazz musicians around town and held down a chair playing the French horn with the National Symphony. Czech conductor George Schick (who subsequently joined the conducting staff of the Metropolitan Opera) served as the production’s percussionist. Frederick Wilkerson, the noted voice coach, became the King. American Negro Theater actors Austin Briggs-Hall and Claire Leyba played Polonius and Gertrude, while Carolyn Hill Stewart, who already had Broadway credits to her name, was Ophelia.
Dodson and Hyman reached out to Sir John Gielgud when the British actor was on tour in Washington. Discovering that the city’s Jim Crow segregation prevented him from dining at his hotel with Dodson and Hyman, Gielgud joined them at the Greyhound Bus Station lunch counter. He spent a day working with the Howard Players, and continued to coach Hyman from afar.
Operating with a miniscule budget, students made the costumes and, even at that, the production still ran out of funds. Dodson had the men perform almost bare chested to save money. When a professor from Carnegie Tech complained that the men were “wandering around with their tits hanging out,” Dodson responded, “We designed the costumes to make them feel free.”
Hyman perfected the ability to fall straight on his face. The audience gasped when, after the famous Ghost had left the stage, he simply collapsed. Actors entered every which way, walking in from the back, the sides, and proclaiming from the top levels of the audience. Hyman changed his costume from black to pink, sending a shiver through the audience.
In one memorable moment, Wilkerson tried to flee the stage as Hyman launched into a sword attack with more enthusiasm than caution. Dodson pushed him back on stage where he was able to complete his death scene. Extras carrying torches lifted Hamlet’s body off stage to the reverberations of Schick’s drums. All during a run that lasted only from July 8 until July 21.
Washington Post drama critic Richard L. Coe, writing for The New York Times, spotted Gielgud’s influence. “While all the voices have that variety of accent common to American classical readings,” Coe lamented, “Mr. Hyman’s has impressive power and command which stood him well in the long role. Considering the very few opportunities a Negro actor has at this role, he shows surprising mastery of its facets and his ability to put his intellectual concept into action is impressive.”
The Evening Star’s Jay Carmody began his review by noting, “on the surface, it is lamentably mismatching play and players when any save the most gifted performers take on ‘Hamlet’. It is tradition that in any such case, both the greatest dramas and the most reckless cast shall lose with the audience a third loser. Well, tradition is being pleasurably interrupted at Howard University this week where ‘Hamlet’ is being played by a company of professional performers under the perceptive and artful direction of Owen Dodson.”
After noting the influence of Gielgud, Carmody praised Hyman. “Hyman’s Prince is a neurotic with a voice that makes a ranging music of Hamlet’s agonized indecision. The Negro actor is a lithe, youthful and dynamic figure who never loses awareness that his distraught prince has a singularly sensitive mind. He moves through the role with an arresting sureness of touch that is the play’s best feature.” Wrapping up, Carmody noted that all those fortunate enough to have seen the performance were sure to remember the experience.
The production surpassed all expectations. Sold out crowds streamed into Spaulding Hall each night, with perhaps as many as 500 people turned away at the door the last evening. The Washington Afro-American writer Lois Taylor speculated that the production might even make its way to Broadway. This was not to be.
Dodson later complained that, prior to the show, journalists constantly asked whether such a play was too ambitious for African American actors. The answer he, Hyman, and their colleagues offered on warm a handful of Washington summer evenings insured that such a question would not be asked again.
Dodson had many years left at Howard when the curtain came down on his Hamlet; and, Hyman still had decades of superior performances on stage, film, and television. Best remembered for his role of Cliff Huxtable’s father Russell in television’s Bill Cosby Show, Hyman would have plentiful opportunities over an illustrious career to demonstrate the power that African American actors bring to the emotional range contained within Shakespeare’s most magnificent characters.
The story has not ended, as evidenced by such contemporary stage and screen stars who learned their craft at Howard as Anthony Anderson, Marlon Wynans, and Chadwick Boseman. Their achievement far too often lies outside the standard accounts of the American stage. Instead, Washington, viewed from the perspective of African American theater, turns out to be a considerable theater town indeed; as was apparent on a handful of summer evenings in July 1951.
The author is presently working on a book examining race and theater in Washington : PERFORMING EXCLUSION: PRIDE CONFRONTS PREJUDICE ON THE WASHINGTON STAGE. We are grateful for his permission to post this excerpt.
This article is the first in our series: Roots: History of Washington DC Theatre