(from Shakespeare & Beyond, February 16, 2021.)  | 

Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth in 1936. Courtesy Library of Congress

A struggling economy. Unemployed artists. Hard-hit Black communities. It might sound like we’re talking about our present pandemic life in America, but this also describes the situation in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.

In the midst of these difficult conditions, a spectacular production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth took the stage at Lafayette Theatre in New York City, involving hundreds of Black actors, theater technicians, and supporting staff. It was financed by the Federal Theatre Project, a controversial part of the federal government’s New Deal programs to provide jobs for Americans.

This 1936 Macbeth was distinctive for a variety of reasons: the large, all-Black cast performing a classical play (extremely unusual for the time); the voodoo-infused setting in 19th-century Haiti with colorful jungle scenery; and the involvement of a 20-year-old Orson Welles, who was making his professional directorial debut.

Related: Listen to a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode about Orson Welles and Shakespeare

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