AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History


The original New York Theater Strategy production of “Fefu and Her Friends” at the Relativity Media Lab in 1977. Left to right, seated: Connie Cicone, Margaret Harrington, Gordana Rashovich, Gwendolyn Brown, and Carolyn Hearn; standing: Rebecca Schull, Joan Voukides, Janet Biehl. (Photo by Rena Hansen)

May 1857 (165 years ago)

Edwin Booth, the second son of English actor Junium Brutus Booth and older brother of John Wilkes Booth, had appeared on New York stages before, but May 4, 1857 marked a turning point in his career. That night he performed Shakespeare’s main character Richard III at Burton’s Chambers Street Theater in New York, a role for which his father was known. Edwin’s playing style was much more restrained than his father’s. He became known for a certain “quietude” that brought a dark intensity to Shakespearean roles like Brutus and Prince Hamlet. Edwin’s considerable success and fame stoked a bitter rivalry between him and his younger brother, John Wilkes, a much less accomplished actor. Politics also played into the rivalry: Edwin was a Unionist, while John Wilkes was a rabid supporter of secession. In a bizarre twist of fate, Edwin is credited with saving the life of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, on a train platform in New Jersey during the Civil War, while John Wilkes is now best known for another theatrical appearance: killing Abraham Lincoln. at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. His younger brother’s act of treachery would later eclipse Edwin’s considerable fame.

May 1937 (85 years ago)

The Federal Dance Project was a short-lived offshoot of the Federal Theater Project, born out of the activism of Helen Tamiris and her insistence that modern dancers not be excluded from the WPA program offering federal grants for theater work. Tamiris was the principal choreographer of the Federal Dance Project, and in May 1937 opened her most famous piece, How long brothers. The play employed 20 white female dancers dramatizing Lawrence Gellert’s play Negro songs of protest, sung by a chorus of black men and women. The intent of the work was to protest the working conditions of black sharecroppers and industrial workers in the South. The work was well reviewed, but at least two black newspapers, the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Mail, criticized the production’s casting of white dancers for embodying the lived experience of black people, accompanied by music sung by a black choir. Two weeks after the popular show debuted, the dancers staged a sit-in to protest rumors of cuts to the WPA schedule. A contemporary report said, “They sat down, audience and dancers, musicians and singers; spent the night at the theatre,” in a notable expression of interracial solidarity among the performers.

May 1977 (45 years ago)

Cuban-American director and playwright María Irene Fornés was created Fefu and his friends at the Relativity Media Lab in New York on May 5. Within six months of its opening, the play won an Obie Award and was remounted at the American Place Theater. The experimental play featured an alternate staging in its second part, with four scenes taking place simultaneously in four different spaces. Audience members were divided into four groups to circle around each of the spaces to watch the four scenes. Immersive or promenade theater is more common now (especially in response to pandemic restrictions), but it was unusual for the time. The play is set in the spring of 1935 in New England and follows eight female characters as they explore issues of gender, sexuality and class difference. Fornés said of her play: “Yes, it’s a feminist play. The play is about women. It is a play that treats each of these women with enormous tenderness and affection.

May 1982 (40 years ago)

In 1896 the Independent Order of Odd Fellows built Odd Fellows Hall on Forest Avenue in Portland, Maine. And 40 years ago this month, the Portland Stage Company moved into the red-brick facade building that they still use today. It houses a 287-seat main theater, a black-box theater studio, and a 40-seat showcase theater for children. The nonprofit professional theater was founded in 1974 as a professional touring company called Profile Theater, but later adopted Portland as its permanent home, changing its name in 1978. Barbara Rosoff, the ’80s artistic director, directed moving to the current location. Anita Stewart is the current Executive and Creative Director overseeing the company’s mission and vision.

May 2002 (20 years ago)

Fashion designer, director and talk show host Isaac Mizrahi won a Drama Desk Award for his costume design of The women on broadway. The play, featuring an all-female cast, was the second Broadway revival of a comedy of manners written by Clare Booth Luce in 1936. Mizrahi’s creations were said to “have as much personality as the smart, talkative women who wear them”. Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Tilly, Rue McClanahan, Kristen Johnston, Jennifer Coolidge and Amy Ryan, among others, shared the stage in this Roundabout Theater Company production. Nixon said of the period costumes: “At first they were hard to manage – skirts that wrinkle the minute you sit on them, hats that have to be pinned to your head, red lipstick lively that goes on everything. You have to get very delicate. Mizrahi had previously designed costumes for choreographers and dance companies including Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

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