Your Tax Dollars Hard at Work: Government-Funded Broadway Voodoo Drama

Opening night, April 1936

As you probably know, the purpose of this blog is to disseminate stories of Voodoo memes, whether they are about colorful Voodoo paper dolls, horrible Voodoo movies, or cool Voodoo comics. We are intrigued by the sheer variety of topics that index Africana spirituality and magic, strange powers, and racial otherness. Still, we wonder, given its recombinations in popular culture, whether there is any substance to the thing that bears the name, Voodoo?

Well then, read on.

Let’s go back to a period in America when the words “big government spending” and “Voodoo thespians” went hand in hand. How could this be? Even today the Trump administration has threatened to defund our nation’s Arts and Humanities Endowments (*they failed). But it is also a time when the Academy of Motion Pictures awards the Best Picture honors to an all-black film, albeit under awkward and unlikely circumstances.  And it was not long ago that three eminent New York Times movie critics bemoaned the persistent color-divide and the dearth of black actors and directors in the field, deploring the “overwhelming whiteness” of the US film industry. One critic went so far as to suggest that a sure way to achieve racial justice might be to investigate studio hiring practices for violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don’t know. If we support government funding for the arts, do we support regulation of the same?

Consider the previous century, when black people and theatre may have been last on anyone’s mind, given that racial segregation was broadly entrenched at all levels of society, that physical violence directed against African American citizens was a widespread occurrence, and that the United States was struggling to get back on its feet in the wake of the devastating national economic emergency known as the Great Depression (1929-1939).

lafayette-theatre-macbeth-1936-1So it is noteworthy that in 1936 on a balmy April evening, an impeccable 65-piece brass band from the Monarch Lodge of the Fraternal Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks marshaled a jubilant crowd of 10,000 fans into the streets outside of a Harlem theater to celebrate the opening of a new production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, MacBeth. Billed as a musical, the story of this MacBeth reminds us of how reliably blackness can be deployed to breathe new life into old forms, even to great critical acclaim and box office success.
Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 6.07.04 PM (Can you say Hamilton?)

What became known as the Voodoo MacBeth premiered with an unusual cast of artists and performers, including a real African “witch doctor” and a magnificent drumming ensemble from Sierra Leone. The play, which ran for 64 weeks, showcased an elaborate set that replicated the “rank and fever stricken jungles of Haiti” with special effects that drew upon the atmospheric valences of the Caribbean. Relocating the original story from Scotland in the Middle Ages to the 19th-century court of Henri Christophe, the revolutionary slave leader and Haitian king, this new version of MacBeth was steered to completion by an unknown, energetic 20-year old radio actor named Orson Welles.

macbeth playbillSome critics proclaimed the performance a resounding success, hailing Voodoo MacBeth as a unique “triumph of theatre art” that “rocked” the Lafayette, the Harlem venue where the play was staged. Some were more muted in their praise, calling the event an “experiment in Afro-American showmanship,” while others worried that the production was little more than “blackface Shakespeare.” As black communists in Harlem picketed the show’s problematic racial politics, white conservatives complained about the wasteful squandering of taxpayer dollars on a boondoggle “vanity production” at the height of an economic crisis. To be sure, the Federal Theatre Project was the largest and most ambitious effort ever mounted by the government to support arts and theatre events for public consumption. It was all part of a “stimulus package” put together by the Roosevelt administration for the newly formed Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the years following the stock market crash. The idea was to provide jobs for former vaudevillians and unemployed theatre workers, because, to paraphrase the WPA director, “artists gotta eat too!” So the Negro Theater Unit of New York City was born. And what did they do? They remade Shakespeare’s tragedy in the black image by foregrounding spectacular elements from the original play and mapping them onto figurations of something called Voodoo – and they paid for it with federal dollars! What! So appalling was this blatant act of socialist excess that the head of the Federal Theater Project was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities for her role as a subversive propagandist of Elizabethan drama. (This really happened)

All joking aside, it is important to underscore that out of work Americans found relief in the form of an ambitious $4.8 billion earmark called Number One, a federal intervention that helped writers, artists, actors, musicians, and chorus dancers of all races, classes, and backgrounds get through some very hard times. Because of this government stimulus, some 137 employees of the Negro Unit – many of whom had been shut out of the racially segregated theatre unions and trade shops in Harlem – would earn a weekly wage for their work on the production. Thus Voodoo MacBeth should be remembered as a great example of the viability of government-public arts partnerships, and certainly for its role in securing a legacy for the Federal Theatre Project, which promoted the talent and teamwork of its black cast, orchestra, stage hands, and others, as fledgling theatre industry professionals.

A good deal has been written about Voodoo MacBeth, not only because it marked the debut of Orson Welles as a Broadway director, but also because of its explicit advancement of the arts for working class Americans at a time when opportunities for exploring theatre vocations were negligible. You know, sort of like, today. So how did it come to pass that Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 6.09.15 PMin an era of Jim Crow and virulent racial discrimination, a remarkable display of black excellence emerged out of a performance that staged African-based spirituality at the center of its exposition? Reflecting back on the extraordinary events of the play’s production more than 40 years later, Orson Welles would claim that it was one of the great successes of his life. Nevertheless, the true heroes of this story remain unsung and largely unknown, including two arts advocates who held space for the dream of African American theatre: the great doyenne of black actors, Rose McClendon, and John Houseman, the British actor and managing producer, who stubbornly insisted on the use of local labor for the technical aspects of the show’s production, such as set-building and design, costumes, and lighting.

Yet and still, we wonder about the “Voodoo” in Voodoo MacBeth. With white folks steadfast in their denial of black peoples’ talent at synthesizing Europe’s cherished cultural artifacts, the idea that a Shakespearean drama could be performed with an African-inspired-Voodoo aesthetic – well, it seems improbable. It appears that Voodoo MacBeth promoted the ingenuity of black cultural production while exploiting Americans’ fascination with African diasporic spirituality, with its curses, witches, and spooky supernaturalism. To be sure, Voodoo MacBeth recapitulated lame and tired stereotypes of Haiti’s indigenous religion, while it also appropriated its most resonant symbols. Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 5.12.09 PMBut was it Voodoo, or Vodou? Like other religions, the rich artistic and theological traditions of Haitian Vodou arise from the concept of the sacredness of the human encounter with divinity. Proficient in ancient ritual technologies of intercession, speech, song, action, and material elements, the Vodou priest is an artist, and the artist is also an actor. Since seremoni Vodou provides a public context for the reenactment of mythic drama, it does much of the same work as theatre. In both religion and theatre, participants bear witness to a kind of alchemical transformation of the human performer – the manifestation of spirit into the flesh – since masterful character creation is a high achievement on the sacred space of the stage. Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 9.17.43 PMOf course, in both cases “possession” occurs by the mediation of a personality that exists beyond time and place, who comes to life via the performed word or the embodied text.  On the set or in the peristyle, each performance comprises the role of a lifetime. No matter if a character is a restless and hungry ancestor or a strong and valiant General of War, the dramatis personae of Vodou are offered to the community by the devoted virtuoso. This is not to say that the whole of the religion is interchangeable with the technical and artistic elements of the theatre, but Vodou and theatre inspire meaningful self-creation for all who witness its beauty and truth, as history collapses into myth and imagination converges with memory as old narratives are re-enacted with each new performance. Still, this is not Voodoo. How do we reconcile this sacred theatre with the depraved stereotypes and terrible visions from those outside of the faith? For its part, Voodoo MacBeth rendered Vodou as exotic source material, transforming Africana spirituality into a culminating projection of racial fantasies, the dark mirror in which the West perennially locates its own fears. The sacred theatre of Vodou is reduced to a useful spectacle to be consumed by others; but it is not didactic.

Note: if you have come this far and want to know even more about what went into the making of this historic play, it is now possible to examine the entire record in present time. Available for public review and appreciation, the documented history of Voodoo Macbeth reflects the efficiency of our government bureaucracies at their very best. At the Library of Congress, for example, you can find written details of the play’s development, from its conception to its realization.Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 6.08.50 PM Here’s a look at an inside view, a trove of meticulous records-keeping and accounting of every penny and requisition, courtesy of the American taxpayer, chronicled with precision and fine administrative detail. You can explore Voodoo MacBeth’s production notes, costume designs, sheet music, photographic negatives, and Welles’ fussy, marked up script of the original play, as well as rare film footage of the opening night performance. And so we offer our thanks for the system, whatever its flaws, so long as it remains accountable to those who promote its continuity. So please support government investment in culture and the arts through the National Endowments. Although Congress defunded the Federal Theatre Project in 1939 when the institutional apparatus of the New Deal was set firmly in place, Voodoo MacBeth reminds us that sometimes big government spending yields lasting, if unexpected, returns.

Published by Y. Chireau

Africana Religions Magic Spirituality

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