Friday, January 13, 2012

American Negro Theatre

The ANT was formed in 1940 by Abram Hill, Frederick O'Neal, and some versions also include Virgil Richardson and  (more on Virgil here) It's Headquarters was set up at the public library at 103 West 135th Street, New York City. In 1942, ANT began its Studio Theater training program for beginning actors. In 1945 The American Negro Theater became the first Black Theater Company with a weekly radio program.This series was produced by Ted Cott, a radio veteran. This was a really big deal. Time magazine wrote up the event in September of 1945 [HERE]:
"Manhattan's independent WNEW last week signed an all-Negro company to do a 13-week series of radio dramas, starting Sept. 16. WNEW said that it hired the group because it was good, not because it was Negro. One proof that the company, the American Negro (repertory) Theater, is indeed able: its Anna Lucasta is now in its second year on Broadway."
According to one source WNEW-AM auditioned 70 black performers and in what was then surely a rakish move also hired one player who was also half-Mexican. The American Negro Theater has both stage productions and a separate radio program. You'd recognize a lot of he names that came from this theater group: Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Frederick O’Neal, Ruby Dee and even James Earl Jones. Their performances included On Striver’s Row by Abram Hill (September 1940), Natural Man by Theodore Browne (May 1941), You Can’t Take It with You by Moss Hart  (August 1946), Rope by Eugene O’Neill (July 1947),  and Freight by Kenneth White (February 1949). You can see a complete list here

While the plays were being offered, the company was also presenting opera on Sunday afternoons also on WNEW. Of course, drama was more common on radio in that era. WNEW for example had seven different drama segments on their schedule in 1945: Manuel Komroff, American Negro Theater, American Theater Wing, Easy Aces, Isn't It A Crime?, New York In A New World, and Side Street. In 1946 they cut that down to Five: American Negro Theater, Adventures Of The Spirit, So You Think You Know People, and High School Hour. Only two of them had sponsors. In 1946 Billboard curtly said that WNEW was unable to get sponsors because nobody could peddle that content to advertisers anymore. WHN in that same year cut all their drama programs entirely. It didn't bode well.

Despite the relative success that got them a slot on on WNEW, and the big Broadway success of a Anna Lucasta, ANT stopped production by the early 1950s.  Notably, founder Frederick O'Neal went on to more political and civic roles off stage.