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Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

[Detail] Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The Negro Unit Production of Macbeth

Producer John Houseman and African-American actress Rose McClendon ran the Negro Theatre Unit, one of five major production units in the FTP. This troupe was responsible for Swing Mikado, a swing version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s piece, W.E.B. DuBois’ Haiti, and Orson Welles’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Wendy Smith’s 1996 article, “The Play That Electrified Harlem” explains the genesis of this unit and its production of classics such as Macbeth:

Harlem audiences, Houseman concluded, would be offended by uptown productions of racial dramas written from a white point of view. And in the militant atmosphere of the '30s, the revues and musicals that had gained mainstream acceptance for many black performers "were regarded as 'handkerchief-head' and so, for our purposes, anathema," as he wrote in his memoirs . . . Houseman decided that one part of the Negro Unit should do classical plays "without concession or reference to color."

  • What does it mean to do a classical play "without concession or reference to color?"

In 1936, Orson Welles set William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in nineteenth-century Haiti with an African-American cast. The costume designs, photographs, and production notebook from Welles’ Macbeth provides a vivid sense of the production. The notebook contains information such as a description of the play’s overture, “Yamekraw” as “a genuine Negro treatise on spiritual, syncopated, and blues melodies expressing the religious fervor and happy moods of the natives of Yamekraw, a Negro settlement situated on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia.” A sample of the music from “An African Dance Drama,” features chants such as “Aha ga-a ra wu-ro a-ga-a ra-wa.”

The Los Angeles production notebook of Macbeth includes a "Director’s Report" describing the changes in setting from Haiti to Africa and explaining that the changes were “influenced architecturally and physiologically by a Negro civilization existing a great number of years ago in Abyssinia and Madagascar. This evolved into a very interesting treatment for both set and costumes.” The play’s synopsis also argues that the casting of African-Americans makes the story “more humanly plausible”:

Especially in this colored version . . . the hero appears to be a mere tool in the hands of a witch doctor and his sinister three sisters, who, with weird and sensuous jungle incantations, strip all pretense . . . off loyalties. Thus it is the witch doctor and his witches who become the real heroes of “Macbeth”. . . .

  • Why did the directors choose Haiti and Africa as the settings of their interpretations of Macbeth?
  • What assumptions about the casting of African Americans in this classical play might these choices reflect?
  • What were the vehicles by which the settings were conveyed according to the photos, costumes, lighting designs, and the production notebook for the play?
  • To what extent do the productions seem to reflect stereotypes?
  • How do the directors' explanations of referencing Yamekraw and Madagascar affect your assessment of the plays and their potential stereotyping?
  • How do these interpretations, set in Haiti and Africa, contribute to or change the overall effect of the play?
  • When the New York production depicted Macbeth with Haitian witch doctors, jungle drums, and a sympathetic hero, was the Negro Unit presenting a classic “without concession or reference to color?”
  • Is it possible to have an African-American theatre unit that doesn’t directly reference race? Is that a positive or negative thing? Why?