In 1937, Orson Welles produced Macbeth in Harlem. With an all-Black cast. And set it in a fictional Caribbean island that emulated 19th-century Haiti. How did that happen? And how have we not heard about it?
If you saw Singin’ in the Rain, then you already know the 1920s talkies not only killed silent film, but they killed stage theater, too—so by 1935, a lot of areas hadn’t seen live performances since vaudeville.
That’s where the FTP came in. Part of the New Deal of 1935 was the Federal Theater Project. It had two main goals: provide jobs for entertainers, and provide free or low-cost entertainment to audiences who had been deprived of theater altogether. Even with these altruistic aims, the FTP was arguably “the most controversial of the Work Progress Administration’s arts programs,” partly because it wasn’t meant to turn a profit at any level, and partly for mismanaging the funds by spending on salaries and not providing much theater.
In 1935, John Houseman became the head of the “Negro Unit” in New York, and although the national director, Hallie Flanagan, insisted on a Black leader for their next project, Houseman went a different way. After consulting other Black professionals, he decided that a white director “would give the unit additional prestige and clout.”
More likely, he thought name recognition would help the project succeed—and because Black performers and professionals were so limited in every capacity in the 1930s, white names were more recognizable. One contemporary writer, Kashann Kilson notes, “Black thespians… found success in Europe and Canada, but were in effect banned from performing Shakespeare in the United States.”
So, with the goal of prestige and clout in mind, Houseman landed on Orson Welles, who had spent his early career stage acting in Europe and had just come off directing a very successful run of Romeo and Juliet in New York.
Houseman offered Welles the directing job, and he asked for suggestions on the play. Welles thought that “a traditional Shakespeare production wouldn’t make it out of Harlem” (nevermind that it was intended to serve Harlem), but it was Welles’ wife, Virginia, who offered the idea of setting Macbeth in 19th-century Haiti. That meant, rather than follow the narrative of the Scottish Highlands, this Macbeth would follow the Haitian slave revolt led by Henri Cristophe, the subsequent King of Haiti.
According to Kilson, Houseman “justified the Caribbean interpretation, reasoning that Harlem audiences would not be interested in watching dramas written from white points of view (though, interestingly, he couldn’t understand why a black point-of-view written by a white author would be a problem). At the same time, he understood black audiences were growing weary of the pigeon-holing of black performances to revues and light song-and dance numbers.” At first blush, some photos of the costumes used for the cast do appear a bit…stereotypical.
But within the context of the Haitian Revolution, Welles revised Shakespeare’s text to amplify the role of the witches. While most productions of Macbeth today either cut or truncate the role of the Hecate, Welles expanded the role, transforming the queen of the witches into a male, voodoo priest (Eric Burrough). Welles also hired African drummers and dancers, led by Sierra Leonean drummer and choreographer… and the head drummer was said to be a voodoo priest himself.
While that hire seems to very much authenticate the sound design of the adaptation, amplifying the role of witchcraft slanted the theme of the play: the original might revolve around a man destroyed by ambition, but in this adaptation, the witches controlled Macbeth (Jack Carter) from the very start.
The production wasn't without controversy. “Some African-Americans feared the production would make their race look ridiculous,” says Wendy Smith. One local zealot, who thought that Welles was trying to deliberately humiliate the race, attacked him with a razor in the Lafayette’s lobby—but Welles was not hurt.
On the other hand, racist critics “argued that a ‘blackened’ or ‘voodoo’ version of Macbeth was a concession that black actors and actresses really couldn’t pass muster performing traditional white theatrical roles.”
But that controversy did what Welles hoped that it would: the play was wildly popular. John Houseman said in his memoir that, “A free preview two days before drew 3,000 more people than could be seated.” (It’s worth noting that although attendance was multicultural, Macbeth still played to a segregated audience.)
On opening night on April 14, 1936, traffic near the theater in Harlem was gridlocked for five blocks: “Every one of the Lafayette's 1,223 seats was taken; scalpers were getting $3 for a pair of 40-cent tickets. The lobby was so packed people couldn't get to their seats; the curtain, announced for 8:45, didn't rise until 9:30.”
“Everybody who was anybody in the black or white world was there,” (sic) states Mark Estrin’s book Orson Welles: Interviews. “And when the play ended there were so many curtain calls that finally they left the curtain open, and the audience came up on the stage to congratulate the actors. And that was, that was magical.”
Welles thought the same of his cast. Barbara Leaming says in his biography that “many of the cast members had never acted in Shakespeare before, (but) Welles believed that they showed a better understanding of the rhythm of the iambic pentameter than many professionals."
Plus, the voices that were not classically trained were supported by the impeccable sound design.
The play ran at the Lafayette Theater for 10, sold-out weeks before it moved to another theater, and it launched the careers of many Black stage actors of the time. That’s not to say the cast was exclusively of unknowns, though. There were four actors who already had a name for themselves:
Jack Carter, who played Macbeth, also played Crown in the original stage production of Porgy, and had gone on its national tour. He later also appeared in Welles’ production of Doctor Faustus and motion pictures in the 1930s and 40s.
Edna Thomas, Lady Macbeth, was a prolific actress in all-Black vaudeville and theater and hailed as “The First Lady of Negro Theatre.” She held innumerable stage roles, but only appeared on screen once…in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Canada Lee was first known as a boxer, but quit when a blow jeopardized his vision. He was a bandleader at the Lafayette Theater, opened his own club, and had already performed on stage in Brother Mose and Stevedore. After playing Banquo, Lee played Bigger Thomas in Native Son, and he continued to act in plays and films like South Pacific and Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, to name a few. The role of Banquo was truly his breakout role that catalyzed his acting career.
Eric Burroughs had already played roles in Harlem, The Good Soldier Schweik, and The Merchant of Venice, but then he played the show-stopping role of the voodoo priest formerly known as Hecate. He subsequently worked extensively in radio dramas, and he got the final word in Welles’ Macbeth: “Peace! The charm’s wound up!”
And of course, this adaptation of Macbeth also launched the illustrious career of Orson Welles himself.
The story of this production has also been adapted to film: upon its release in 2021, Voodoo Macbeth directed by Dagmawi Abebe, Victor Alonso-Berbel, and Roy Arwas won 15 awards. You can watch the adaptation on Roku. And you can watch the fascinating final four minutes of the original performance here.