This spring a new theater will open at NYU’s 181 Mercer Street building, and it will pay homage to and commemorate the groundbreaking achievements of the historic African Grove Theatre.
The African Grove Theatre was the first Black theater in the country that made history on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets in 1821. The theater got its start through retired steamship steward William Alexander Brown who would host poetry readings, musical performances, and short plays for Black New Yorkers in his backyard at 38 Thomas Street in 1816.
Referred to as the “tea garden,” this space was New York’s only place for Black patrons to enjoy leisure entertainment.
After expanding into a 300-seat theater in 1821, they began drawing substantial crowds through their performances of Shakespearean classics performed by Black actors, ballets, comedies, and an original play written by Brown, titled The Drama of King Shotaway.
NYU’s 181 Mercer building will commemorate the achievements of the original African Grove Theatre and will serve as an evolving memorial to the cultural institution.
The new theater, sharing the same moniker as the original and sitting at the same place, will be used by the NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Graduate Acting Program and Design for Stage and Film Program, who will put on seven productions.
Beyond these productions, NYU faculty and administrators will curate additional events for the theatre, including an annual symposium that reflects on the history of Black theater and culture in New York and beyond.
Displays will be on view throughout the theater which celebrate the history of Black theater in America, the African Grove Theatre, and the achievements of Black actors, both in America and abroad. These displays will educate and provide important historical context to audiences.
A to-scale model of the original African Grove Theatre will also be on display.
“The NYU community has its roots in the collective histories of New York City and is proud to call Greenwich Village home. It’s crucial that we make space for the powerful stories and legacies of these Black artists; to celebrate their triumphs and travails, so that it can inspire future generations of theater makers as they continue to experiment, innovate, and elevate artistic expression at NYU and beyond for years to come,” said NYU President Andrew Hamilton.
NYU’s African Grove Theatre is made possible by a $1 million donation. It will open this spring.