June 5th marks the 75th anniversary of the American Negro Theatre (ANT). Founded in 1940 by Abram Hill, Frederick O’Neal, and other artists in Harlem, ANT was formed to provide work for Black theater professionals in a time where there was little work or recognition to be found in the mainstream arena. They began in the basement of the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library. By 1945, they went on to the Elks Lodge on West 126th St., which was then called the American Negro Theatre Playhouse. By 1950, ANT moved to its last residence – a loft on West 125th St.
A major focus of ANT was to show a wider array of stories and storytelling that was seldom seen whenever Black artists were on stage. This led to the productions of several original plays as well as adaptations of existing classic and contemporary works for all-Black casts. Their first major success came in 1944 when Anna Lucasta by Phillip Yordan debuted on Broadway starring Hilda Simms and Frederick O’Neal. It was ANT’s first all-Black play with a non-racial theme and went on to a national tour, a production in London, and a film in 1958 starring Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis, Jr..
Financial issues and artistic difficulties brought the unfortunate demise of ANT by the mid-1950s, yet the legacy and revolutionary spirit had only just begun. The American Negro Theater was the beginning for many amazing artists such as Vinie Burrows, Harry Belafonte, Alice Childress, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Isabel Sanford, and many other dynamic actors, directors, and playwrights. It is because of these artists that we can do more today. Happy Anniversary!
Known to the locals as “The Harlem Library Little Theatre,” the ANT was founded in 1940 as a community space for thespians to work in productions that illustrated the diversity of black life. This exhibition is taken entirely from the Schomburg Collections and highlights the ANT’s stage productions from 1940 through 1949 with photographs, posters, playbills, and news clippings. Images include scenes from successful plays such as Anna Lucasta, studio workshops, and radio broadcasts featuring prominent talent whose careers began at the ANT. The exhibition is located in the Theatre, and is open 10:00 – 6:00, M, F, S, and 10:00 – 8:00, T, W, Th.
Now through January 2016
515 Malcolm X Boulevard New York, NY, 10037 (917) 275-6975