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When Orson Welles and Macbeth went to Harlem

A production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth from 1930s New York inspired a new exhibition writes Esme Choonara

Issue No. 2026

The crowds on the opening night of Welles’s Macbeth in New York (Pic: Federal Theatre Project Collection)

The crowds on the opening night of Welles’s Macbeth in New York (Pic: Federal Theatre Project Collection)

For several weeks in 1936, people walking around the Harlem area of New York would have come across the word Macbeth cryptically daubed in glowing paints on every street corner.

This was the build up to a remarkable version of the play produced by Orson Welles for the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Unit.

For most of the Harlem audience, this was their first chance to see Shakespeare. Performed with an all black cast, the production kept the original language, but transferred the setting of the play from Scotland to 19th century Haiti.

The characters of the witches became Voodoo priestesses, which is why the production became known as “Voodoo Macbeth”.

The play hit a nerve - over 10,000 people gathered outside the theatre to mark the opening night. Its ten week run at the Lafayette theatre sold out and it went on to downtown New York. It then went on to tour - with the company refusing to play in a couple of places where the local authorities wanted the audiences to be racially segregated.

The commissioning of the play in Harlem was significant. The 1930s economic depression hit the poor of Harlem hard.

Voodoo Macbeth was performed at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance - a vibrant movement of art, poetry, writing and performance between the end of the First World War and the Harlem riot of 1935.

Charles S Johnson was one of the writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance. He described the context of this artistic movement for black people in the northern cities of the US.

He wrote, “almost total political disfranchisement, economic disinheritance, denial of educational opportunity, complete racial segregation, with a gaudy racial philosophy to defend it, cultural isolation…followed by mass migrations and revolts, and the tortuous struggle to slough off the heavy handicaps in order to achieve more completely a new freedom”.


The massive enthusiasm for the play was an expression of the struggle and desire for that new freedom.

The play was also a significant moment for Orson Welles who was only 20 at the time. It was the first time that Welles worked with the actor John Houseman, with whom he went on to collaborate on the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and the film Citizen Kane.

The current exhibition at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill takes the Harlem production of Voodoo Macbeth as the inspiration for bringing together a series of artworks and events.

There is plenty here to please Orson Welles fans. There are seven original 1936 photographs from Voodoo Macbeth that capture both the dignity of the cast and the excitement of the audience, along with monitors playing some of Welles’s films including a full length screening of Citizen Kane.

There is also a fascinating and very beautiful short film by Welles from 1942 called “Four Men in A Raft” which tells the story of a group of Brazillian fishermen who traveled on a raft from Fortaleza to Rio - 1,600 miles - to protest about the prices they were getting for their fish.

The exhibition takes some of Welles’s work as a point of departure but this is not a tribute exhibition. It develops two themes - the style and aesthetics of Orson Welles, and the questions of culture, globalisation and the US.

The exhibition contains work from some of Welles’s contemporaries such as photographer Lee Miller and surrealist Jean Cocteau.

Alongside these, a number of modern works explore the use of shadow, and contrasts of light and dark, including a short claustrophobic film by Steve McQueen that focuses in detail on elements of the face of actress Charlotte Rampling.

My favourite modern piece - if favourite is the right word for something so bleak - is a short black and white film by Kara Walker called 8 Possible Beginnings Or: The Creation of African-America.

Using silhouettes of paper cut outs as puppets, it charts the role of slavery and racism in the creation of the modern US. To a disturbingly cheerful soundtrack, the film capture the brooding threat of violence and sexual assault that slaves faced from slave owners.

The De La Warr Pavillion which is putting on this ambitious exhibition is worth a visit in its own right. It is a stunning modernist building overlooking the sea.

It was one of the first public modernist buildings, opened in 1936 - coincidentally the same year that Voodoo Macbeth was first produced. It was recently renovated and reopened last year with refurbished gallery space and a new auditorium in which they are showing a season of Orson Welles’s films.

One piece in the exhibition from video and installation artist Phyllis Baldino has been commissioned for the gallery. Entitled Mars/New York/Rome/De La Warr, it is an installation in a huge room with screens at opposite ends.


On one screen is a film of a very bright abstract portrayal of a fictional Mars. Opposite it there is a film of anti-war demonstrations from Rome in 2006 and from New York anti-Bush protests on the eve of the 2004 Republican convention.

These are overset with an extract from Orson Welles’s 1938 live radio broadcast of War of the Worlds - which caused mass panic when people heard it at the time.

As a fan of both anti-war protests and the War of the Worlds, I am not convinced that the installation reached its potential either as a work of art or as a commentary on how the US war on terror is a modern - non fiction - war of the worlds.

But it does say something about the impact of the anti-war movement that images from the demonstrations are cropping up increasingly as motifs in art and film.

And who can argue with giant pictures of anti-war protests being shown in the room next to the tea shop?

Voodoo Macbeth is on at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill on Sea until 7 January. Go to

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Sat 11 Nov 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2026
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