1936 Harlem’s ‘Voodoo Macbeth’

Before Citizen Kane and The War of the Worlds, leading Broadway actress Rose McClendon and producer John Houseman convince a gifted but untested 20-year-old Orson Welles to direct Shakespeare’s Macbeth with an all-Black cast in Harlem.

Reimagined in a Haitian setting, this revolutionary 1936 production, which came to be known as “Voodoo Macbeth,” was fraught with cast/director clashes – particularly between Orson and Rose – who played Lady Macbeth – over everything from scene blocking to crew hires. A larger, political storm also lingered nearby with Washington figures looking to shut down “communist propaganda.”

The movie ‘Voodoo Macbeth’ which came out a few weeks ago, is based on this amazing true story of a young Orson Welles directing the first production of “Macbeth” with an all-Black cast.

The movie “Voodoo Macbeth” somehow acquired a whopping ten directors and eight writers and controversially includes some difficult subject matter, including Orson Welles performing in blackface.

According to one of the directors, Orson Welles did indeed put on blackface and go onstage during one of his productions. The team decided to put the spotlight on the justified outrage that ensued rather than center the scene on Welles or excuse his actions.

“We wanted to show the anger that the other characters had against it,” Salnave said. “I think it was just as, you know, discriminatory and hurtful then. But they just maybe, perhaps didn’t have the voice or the ability to voice their opinions on it and put their foot down and say that they really didn’t like it. So we invoked a little bit, I think, of like a modern touch on that, but it gets the point across that, you know, it is a part of our history, and it’s not right.”

Turkish Baths

Urban Archive has a great article from Landmark East Harlem on the Mount Morris (Turkish) Baths that were located at the corner of 125th and Madison:

https://www.urbanarchive.org/stories/1P3aRw1DV44

Continuously in use from 1893-2003, Mt. Morris was the only bathhouse in New York City that specifically catered to Black men. The Baths started serving a predominantly gay clientele, probably sometime during the Harlem Renaissance. Those frequenting the baths during that period included Countee Cullen, Harold Jackman, Carl Van Vechten, and Lincoln Kirstein. Up until the 1960s, it was the only gay bathhouse in the city to admit Black customers.