4. THE VOODOO MACBETH

As the winter of 1936 turned into spring, the Negro Theatre’s Macbeth was in final rehearsals. Welles had finally honed the production sufficiently to let Houseman attend. Other rising stars in the theatrical arts also had been hard at work: Virgil Thomson writing and rehearsing a musical score, Abe Feder setting up the stage lighting, and Nat Karson designing and supervising the construction of the set. As the set took shape backstage at the Lafayette, it edged the actors in the still-running Conjur’ Man Dies ever closer to the footlights. Meanwhile, the Macbeth cast rehearsed in the hall of the Monarch Lodge of the Elks Club on 137th Street. Finally, its 137 actors, understudies, and support staff shifted to the Lafayette and rehearsed between midnight and dawn. Jack Carter, cast in the title role, joined Orson Welles in whipping the cast and crew through the killing schedule. The opening was set for April 14.

Rumors raced through Harlem as the day approached. One claimed the play was a white man’s trick to embarrass the black community, another that the set and costumes would bankrupt the Negro Theatre and force it to close. Curiosity spread. Anthony Buttitta, a writer for the theater project magazine, caught the subway uptown a few days before the opening to take notes for a story and walked into a buzz of expectation. He realized that painters had been at work on the sidewalks, stenciling “Macbeth” in glowing letters at the corners of each block. A sign in the box office window announced that opening-night tickets were sold out. Bystanders had clustered around the stage door to watch the delivery of vividly colored costumes. And he learned that Karson had sent assistants to forage in Central Park and suburban woodlands for foliage to forest the Haitian Birnam Wood.

Two days before the opening, Houseman staged a free dress rehearsal. The theater filled so quickly that 3,000 people crowded outside, jostling and protesting, until a squad of riot police arrived to disperse them.

Early on opening night, eighty-five members of the Monarch Lodge Elks band assembled in formation outside their recreation hall in their light blue, gold, and scarlet uniforms. At a signal, they set forth in two groups for the Lafayette, four blocks away. The lead marchers carried crimson banners that stretched across the width of the street: “Macbeth, by Wm. Shakespeare.” The bands reached the Lafayette about six-thirty. By then there were 10,000 people milling around the vicinity of the theater, and the police struggled to keep the entrance clear. Every major drama critic in the city was attending—although one of them had asked that he and his wife be seated “not next to Negroes”—and the audience wore jewels and furs. Hallie Flanagan, no stranger to the pomp of opening nights, appeared with her customary corsage pinned to the cape draped across her shoulders. Truck-mounted floodlights beamed a path into the lobby, and popping flashbulbs and grinding newsreel cameras marked the passage of dignitaries and celebrities as they made their way inside.

The curtain rose to the thunder of drums and an orgy of voodoo incantations. From the opening moment, the production’s furious action, lush set, lavish costumes, and compelling performances mesmerized its audience. When the final curtain fell it erupted into tumultuous cheers and applause.

The reviews, as Houseman later wrote, “were a joy to read.” With one exception, they praised the performances and the concept of what was being called the voodoo Macbeth. Reporter Martha Gellhorn, previously one of Harry Hopkins’s field investigators dispatching their views of the depression from around the country, described “a hot richness that I have almost never seen in the theatre or anywhere else” the audience watched and listened “as if this were a murder mystery by Edgar Wallace, only much more exciting.”

The exception was Percy Hammond’s review in the politically conservative Herald Tribune. Hammond echoed the paper’s anti–New Deal stance with an article in the next day’s paper that was basically a political screed: “The Negro Theatre, an offshoot of the Federal Government and one of Uncle Sam’s experimental philanthropies, gave us last night, an exhibit of deluxe boondoggling.”

That afternoon, Houseman came upon the witch doctor and drummers studying the notices. They had singled out Hammond’s and wanted to know if it was “evil.” Houseman agreed that it was. Was it the work of an enemy? they asked. Was he a bad man? Houseman agreed on both counts, then left to celebrate the block-long line outside the box office.

The house manager reported to Houseman the next day that he had heard angry drumming and “weird and horrible” chants issuing from the theater basement deep into the night. Houseman knew the Africans took their voodoo seriously. After he and Welles had cast them, they had requisitioned five live black goats, which they ritually sacrificed, then turned the hides into drumskins. And when Houseman and Thomson had asked during rehearsals if the voodoo numbers could sound more wicked, the witch doctor warned the spell might become too strong, darkening the incantations only after Houseman insisted. But he was stunned to read the news on the afternoon of the sixteenth that the critic Percy Hammond had suddenly fallen ill. He died several days later, reportedly of pneumonia.

By the time Macbeth opened in Harlem in April 1936, the Federal Theatre had put 10,700 theatrical workers back to work across the United States, 5,000 in New York alone. Actors, including vaudeville and circus performers—one was a young acrobat and gymnast named Burt Lancaster—accounted for nearly half the total, along with directors, costume and scene designers, playwrights and researchers, costumers, ushers, theater and box office managers, ticket takers, stagehands, clerks and office workers, watchmen and janitors, and teachers. Like Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, and Sidney Lumet, some of the performers would become household names.

Theater project units operated in thirty-one states. Eleven cities had black companies. Like New York, California had its own Yiddish group. In heavily Cuban Tampa, Florida, Cuban performers formed a Federal Theatre unit and served up a song and dance revue and plays in Spanish. Units in Chicago and California revived theatrical milestones such as Under Two Flags and Shenandoah, produced by older actors who gave the productions the look of the originals. In half a dozen units, playwrights labored to build dramas around local historical events. Classics such as Euripides and popular repertory from Shakespeare to Ibsen, Gilbert and Sullivan, Shaw, and Oscar Wilde were being mounted. Circus, marionette, and dance troupes toured in every section of the country.

In the March 1936 issue of the Federal Theatre Bulletin, Hallie Flanagan wrote, “No one who has seen these thousands of theatre workers rehearsing in barns, lofts, and studios, spending far more than the required hours, working with energy and devotion to re-learn the exacting techniques of the stage, can believe that the Federal Theatre as it gathers momentum will be any the less potent because it has the remembrance of hunger in its stomach.”

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