From Publishers Weekly
New York abolition, which was formally granted in 1817 but not fully carried out until July, 4, 1827, complicated the social structure of the state and city during an awkward, staggered process. During this period a theater troupe called the African Company emerged. White, a professor of history at Australia's University of Sydney, reconstructs the vital life of this troupe in the New York of the 1820s, situating its struggles within the larger context of a sometimes exuberant yet uneasy time. Not only did the company perform Shakespeare's Richard III, one of the era's most popular dramas, as its first production, but the cast often rewrote dialogue and inserted elements from other sources. As played by former slave Charles Taft, the reworked lead role took on an added dimension, becoming a version of the trickster figure from African folklore. Many white critics and community figures were, not surprisingly, scandalized by the productions, and company members suffered harassment at the hands of local toughs and authorities alike. Taft was jailed for theft, and his successor James Hewlitt became the victim of changing audience tastes that doomed his career before he ended up imprisoned as a smalltime con artist. While the African Company's existence has previously been noted by scholars, it has generally been dismissed as a novelty or aberration. Drawing on extensive research, White emphasizes such achievements as the on-stage depiction of slavery, and vividly depicts powerful personalities like Taft and Hewlitt. He makes a persuasive case for the company's cultural importance, particularly as a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance that was still a century away.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
*Starred Review* The early decades of the nineteenth century were turbulent as blacks and whites struggled with the end of slavery in New York. It was an era marked by race riots, forced segregation, and degrading depictions of black life, even as whites demonstrated a voyeuristic fascination with New York's black citizenry. Drawing on newspaper accounts, court records, and other documents, White recounts the black theater, balls, cotillions, and other social expressions that provoked virulent attacks and editorializing from whites uneasy with the new freedom blacks enjoyed. The author, a history professor, focuses on a black theater group, its leading actor, James Hewlett, and a Jewish newspaper editor, Mordecai Noah, as telling representatives of how blacks sought to express their freedom and whites sought to keep them in their place. Hewlett was prominent among performers trying to maintain their dignity in a range of dramatic productions, including Shakespeare, at a time when minstrel shows were coming into vogue. White captures the vibrancy and difficulties of the era when a distinct black culture began to emerge, and draws parallels to the current American cultural melange and contemporary racial attitudes. Vanessa BushCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved