Lafayette Theatre remembered as an important venue in Black History

Although this important building was finally torn down just four years ago, cherished memories of The Lafayette Theatre are still fresh in the minds of many people. Activities housed at the building left an indelible mark on the culture of Harlem in the 20th Century. Located at 132nd Street and 7th Avenue, the 1,500-seat two-story theater was known locally as “the House Beautiful.” From its opening in 1912 through 1951 when it was converted into a church, and finally in the 1960s before it was damaged in a fire, this one performance space was an essential stage for African Americans who wished to make a contribution to American theatre. For an all-too-brief period of time, they did.

The Lafayette Theater was the first major theater to desegregate in New York selling tickets on the main floor to African Americans and whites, alike. It changed it’s original segregated policy just a year after opening. Home to one of the best-known Black acting company – The Lafayette Players – it was a training ground and showcase for artists that would later move onto Broadway as well as films. Originally established at the rival Lincoln Theatre as The Anita Bush Players, actress Bush sold the company in 1916 to the theater in 1916 to erase debts that had been incurred. The group’s name was changed to the Lafayette Players with Bush’s consent although she remained a member until 1920. Within the first year, Bush organized four new groups of Lafayette Players in other cities for her circuit tour.

After Bush stepped down as manager, lead actor Charles S. Gilpin, took over. Gilpin had starred in some of The Bush Players most successful productions. He went on to become Broadway’s first Black dramatic star when he was cast as Brutus Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s THE EMPEROR JONES. Under him, the Lafayette Players became the first legitimate Black stock company in Harlem. Other well-known actors who were cast included Edna Morton, Canada Lee, Rose McClendon, Oscar Micheaux and Clarence Muse. The arranger James P. Johnson and director Edgar Forrest were involved for a while as well. As the Depression began to effect the economy the Players lost some of financial stablity. The group relocated to Los Angeles in 1928 when a white company bought them. They performed there until disbanding in 1932.

In addition to plays, the venue regularly hosted musical performances featuring well-known Jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, and Fletcher Henderson. Ellington made his New York debut performing on that stage and would return to it throughout his career.

A shot of the crowd outside of the Lafayette Theatre at the gala opening of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth with an all-Black cast.

During the Depression, as an aspect of the Federal Theatre Project, The Lafayette served as the home of the FTP’s Negro Unit in Harlem. Under the management of Orson Welles and John Houseman, Welles directed an adpated version of MACBETH that transported the play from Scotland to the island nation of Haiti. Hugely successful, the production moved from Harlem to a run on Broadway before going on a national tour.

A photo of the company of artists that were the New Lafayette Theatre.

In 1967 the theatre’s legacy inspired a second generation of Black Theatre artists when actor/director Robert Macbeth established the New Lafayette Theatre at the location. Another ensemble of the Black Arts Movement, New Lafayette was instrumental to introducing playwright-in-residence Ed Bullins to New York. The first plays by Bullins they performed were a trilogy called THE ELECTRONIC NIGGER AND OTHERS. The three plays earned Bullins a Drama Desk Award in 1968. The company was housed on the site of the original Lafayette Theatre until a fire in early in 1968. They were producing another play by Bullins entitled WE RIGHTEOUS BOMBERS, set during the 1967 Detroit Uprising, when the theatre caught fire. Although the crime was never solved many suspected the fire was the result of arson.

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