William Shakespeare's Macbeth has quite a reputation. An old superstition holds that disaster will befall anyone who even says the play's title aloud inside a theater—but in 1936, a unique reinterpretation of the "Scottish play" proved very lucky indeed for a group of black stage actors and their young, rising-star director, a 20-year-old Orson Welles.
A poster advertising the "Voodoo Macbeth"
Known popularly as the "Voodoo Macbeth," the play was a project of the New York City branch of the Works Projects Administration's Federal Theatre Negro Unit. Aside from providing paid work for actors, directors, and stage technicians during the empty-pocket years of the Great Depression, this organization encouraged truly innovative theatrical experiments.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, played by black actors Jack Carter and Marie Young
The "Voodoo Macbeth" is a prime example of this artistic freedom: in addition to an all-black cast, the setting of the play was transposed from medieval Scotland to 19th-century Haiti. Notably, one of the most iconic scenes of the play, Macbeth's eerie visit to the fortunetelling witches, was changed to reflect the Haitian setting: instead of decrepit old women, the soothsayers in the 1936 production were male Voodoo priests.
Macbeth visits the "witches"
When the play opened on April 14, 1936, the streets around the Lafayette Theater in Harlem resembled a Hollywood red carpet.
A New York Times article about the production's premiere
The bold production ended up being a runaway hit, far exceeding box office expectations: after the standing-room-only flashy premiere, the play was sold out for all ten weeks of its original run.
Exuberant crowds outside Harlem's Lafayette Theater on opening night
The play's story didn't end there—encouraged by the enthusiastic response of both black and white New York audiences, the play's producers decided to take the show on the road. For the next two years, the "Voodoo Macbeth" packed theaters around the United States, including the Jim Crow South.
One particularly moving example of the play's amazing effect on diverse audiences is its inclusion in the 1938 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. As Jesse O. Thomas, an early civil rights activist who helped to organize the exposition, wrote in his book Negro Participation in the Texas Centennial Exposition,
We had the play 'Macbeth' with a Negro cast, in the Band Shell. Whites and Negroes sat on the same floor. This was not true of any theatre in the City of Dallas in which Negroes and whites both attend... There was no hesitation on the part of either group as they mingled together in these places without hitch or hinder.
Later in the book, Thomas notes,
One of the most talked of features of the Exposition was the production of 'Macbeth' by the Harlem Unit of the WPA Theatre Project of New York City... The performances at the Exposition were acclaimed by theatre goers, many of whom for the first time had an opportunity to see trained Negro actors and actresses in dramatic roles.
The fame of the production spread far beyond the theater world. The newsreel below, which would have been shown before a feature film in a movie theater, describes the play in glowing terms—and includes actual footage of the actors performing.
As the newsreel narrator puts it, "In this contribution to the American theater... we have set our feet on the road toward a brighter future."
You can read much more about the production in this 1996 article from Civilization magazine—or explore a vast archive of photographs, notes, and advertising materials from the play thanks to the Library of Congress.