AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History

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The Magik Theatre’s performing home, Beethoven Hall in San Antonio, Texas.

August 1887 (135 years ago)

Thomas Montgomery Gregory (Middle) Educator, Playwright, Philosopher, Activist (1887-1971). (Photo credit: Howard University)

In Washington DC, Thomas Montgomery Gregory was born on August 31, 1887. A graduate of both Williston Seminary and Harvard UniversityGregory became the first theater director to Howard University. A fervent advocate of black empowerment through art, he once wrote, “If art is self-expression, it must be racial expression. Gregory argued that the United States needed a national Negro theater but could not fulfill his dream. He, however, sparked the National Negro Theater Movement and inspired many students and would-be artists during his tenure at Howard and in his later career as supervisor of black schools in Atlantic City, NJ Gregory died in November 1971.

August 1937 (85 years ago)

Following praise for their April 1936 production of macbeth– later dubbed macbeth voodoo—John Houseman and Orson Welles left the Works Progress Administration Federal Theater Projectof which Houseman was the director of New York’s Negro theater unitand founded the Mercury Theater in August 1937. The theatre, originally located in the Broadway district, premiered with a critically acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare Julius Caesar. The company, along with its troupe of performers, would later move to Hollywood and expand its influence through the hour-long radio program. The Mercury Theater Livewhich reached homes across the United States, producing the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and, later, through films produced, directed and written by Welles, including 1941 Citizen Kane. This film dissolved the relationship between Houseman and Welles, and the Mercury Theater finally closed in 1946.

August 1942 (80 years ago)

Scene from ‘Othello’ with Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona. Theater Guild Production, Broadway, 1943-44.

The Brattle Street Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts hosted the premiere of a thrilling production in August 1942. Actor Paul Robeson took up the mantle from Shakespeare. othello— one of the first black actors to do so on a large stage since Ira Aldridge in 1835. The Boston production, directed by Margaret Webster and starring Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer, was a smash hit and soon transferred to Broadway in 1943. The production ran a total of 296 performances at the Shubert Theater and remains one of the longest-running productions of a Shakespeare play to date.

August 1962 (60 years ago)

After a celebrated race at Edgewater Beach Playhouse in Chicago, Ossie Davis’ Victorious Purlie closed in the Windy City in August 1962. The production, starring Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee, told the story of a minister trying to help protect a small-town church and slow down the cruel hand of a plantation owner. The comedy series had already made a turn on Broadway (September 1961 to May 1962) before hitting the road in cities like Chicago. Being Ossie Davis’ most successful play, it would later spawn a film, The days are over (1963), and a musical adaptation titled purlie, with music by Gary Geld and lyrics by Peter Udell (1970).

August 1997 (25 years ago)

Having served the public of San Antonio, Texas, for three years, Magik Theater finally moved into Beethoven Hall, a permanent performance space, in August 1997. The theater had quickly gained a solid reputation in the south-central Texas city after it was formed by Richard Rosen in 1994. The theater’s mission to make art for children in San Antonio with a special eye on literacy is expressed in its extensive work in schools in the community through tours and art education. The Magik Theater remains one of the only professional resident theater companies in the region.

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