Up Close: The voodoo Macbeth that generated jobs for Black Americans during the Great Depression

Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth
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

The play was incredibly popular, selling out performances for weeks before going on tour to other Federal Theatre Project theaters around the United States. Ticket prices were held down because the goal of the Federal Theatre Project was to keep artists employed while providing low-cost theater to the public. It was a relief program, not a money-making venture.

Congress ended up canceling the Federal Theatre Project in 1939, with the House Un-American Activities Committee accusing the program of encouraging racial integration and Communist sympathies. While Orson Welles would go on to a legendary directing career, the Black actors and theater technicians employed by the Federal Theatre Project were not so fortunate; the actors were once again relegated to mostly stereotypical stage roles for Black Americans, and the technicians were barred from theatrical trade unions, effectively limiting their ability to find work.

This program from the 1936 production of Macbeth is part of the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. Click through the arrows to see captions that zoom in on different parts of the image. Click the eye icon to hide or display the captions. You can also examine the image at your own pace by clicking and dragging to move and by scrolling to zoom in and out.

Interested in learning more? In her fascinating essay, “The Play That Electrified Harlem,” Wendy Smith writes about the rise and fall of the Federal Theatre Project, how Orson Welles came to be involved with Macbeth, racial tensions between the white director and the Black cast, and what reviewers at the time said about the production.

You can also see footage from the production’s final scene on the National Film Preservation Foundation website.

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