Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Macbeth,” the First Shakespeare Production With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

In 1935, a 19-year-old Orson Welles—just becom­ing well-known as a radio actor—found him­self part of the Fed­er­al The­atre Project, a New Deal pro­gram start­ed to help strug­gling writ­ers, actors, direc­tors, and the­ater work­ers. Hired by John House­man, then direc­tor of New York’s Negro The­atre Unit, Welles threw him­self into the project, even invest­ing his own earn­ings from his radio work to speed pro­duc­tions along and make them more pro­fes­sion­al. He would lat­er tell Peter Bog­danovich, “Roo­sevelt once said that I was the only oper­a­tor in his­to­ry who ever ille­gal­ly siphoned mon­ey into a Wash­ing­ton project.”

For his first play, Welles adapt­ed Shake­speare’s Mac­beth, set­ting it on the island of Haiti under post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary ruler King Hen­ri Christophe. Instead of the Scot­tish witch­craft of the orig­i­nal, Welles’ pro­duc­tion fea­tured Hait­ian vodou rit­u­als, and it thus acquired the name “Voodoo Mac­beth.”

You can see four min­utes of the pro­duc­tion in the film above. Despite the change of set­ting, a voiceover announc­er tells us, “the spir­it of Mac­beth and every line of the play has remained intact.”

Voodoo Macbeth Playbill

The play debuted in 1936 at Harlem’s Lafayette The­ater and was per­formed for seg­re­gat­ed audi­ences. It was so pop­u­lar that it exceed­ed its ini­tial run, then toured the coun­try, spend­ing two weeks in Dal­las at the Texas Cen­ten­ni­al Expo­si­tion (see a play­bill above). Welles, at 20 years of age, was hailed as a prodi­gy. The adap­ta­tion, writes the Dig­i­tal Pub­lic Library of Amer­i­ca, “brought mag­i­cal real­ism and aspects of Hait­ian cul­ture to the pro­duc­tion.”

The play includ­ed drum­mers who played and sang chants from voodoo cer­e­monies. Welles reimag­ined the witch­es from the orig­i­nal Mac­beth as voodoo priest­esses. Cos­tumes reflect­ed fash­ion from Haiti’s nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry colo­nial peri­od.

As with so many of Welles’ the­ater exper­i­ments, crit­i­cal opin­ion divid­ed sharply. Some, includ­ing the Harlem Com­mu­nists, saw the play as racist com­e­dy. Many oth­ers “felt that Welles’ cast­ing of an entire com­pa­ny of African-Amer­i­can actors allowed these actors to show their tal­ent and tenac­i­ty dur­ing per­for­mances in front of seg­re­gat­ed audi­ences.”


The play employed 150 actors, includ­ing box­er and suc­cess­ful film actor Cana­da Lee as Ban­quo (above), and “raised con­tem­po­rary social issues that for some drew uncom­fort­able atten­tion to nation­al prob­lems.” (Wikipedia has a full cast list and sev­er­al pro­duc­tion stills.)

All footage of the pro­duc­tion was thought lost for sev­er­al years, until the four min­utes at the top were dis­cov­ered in the short film above, “We Work Again.” Pro­duced by Alfred Edgar Smith—a civ­il rights activist and one­time mem­ber of F.D.R.‘s so-called “Black Cabinet”—this film details in opti­mistic tones the WPA’s suc­cess in cre­at­ing jobs for unem­ployed African-Amer­i­cans. Smith worked, writes The New York Times, “to ban dif­fer­en­tial pay rates and to hire black case work­ers in the South,” and he made “We Work Again” as one of many “stud­ies on how blacks fared under relief pro­grams.” His efforts, of course, have their own his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, but we can also thank Smith for pre­serv­ing the only sur­viv­ing sound and mov­ing image of Welles’ first major the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion. “The ‘Voodoo’ Mac­beth,” writes Shake­speare schol­ar Susan McCloskey, is notable as “the first black pro­fes­sion­al pro­duc­tion of Shake­speare, an impor­tant crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess for the Fed­er­al The­atre, and an appro­pri­ate­ly daz­zling debut for its twen­ty-year-old direc­tor.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles’ Radio Per­for­mances of 10 Shake­speare Plays

Orson Welles Turns Heart of Dark­ness Into a Radio Dra­ma, and Almost His First Great Film

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Sur­re­al­ist First Film (1934)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Shakespeare PhD Student says:

    *Not* the first Shake­speare pro­duc­tion with an all-black cast, sim­ply the first to be direct­ed by a white man and noticed by the white nation. The link you pro­vide in the text “New York’s Negro The­atre Unit” takes the read­er to As their entry for the African Grove The­atre points out,

    “The African Com­pa­ny was the first known black the­atre troupe. In 1816, William Hen­ry Brown (1815–1884), a retired West Indi­an steamship stew­ard, acquired a house on Thomas Street in low­er Man­hat­tan, New York. He offered a vari­ety of instru­men­tal and vocal enter­tain­ments on Sun­day after­noons in his tea gar­den, attract­ing a size­able audi­ence from the five bor­oughs of New York City.

    In 1821, Brown moved to Mer­cer and Bleek­er Street into a two-sto­ry house with a spa­cious tea gar­den. He con­vert­ed the sec­ond floor into a 300-seat the­atre and renamed the enter­prise The African Grove The­atre. Open­ing the sea­son with a per­for­mance of Richard III (21 Sep­tem­ber 1821), the com­pa­ny mount­ed pro­duc­tions rang­ing from Shake­speare, to pan­tomime, to farce.”

    Famed actor Ira Aldridge was an alum­nus of the com­pa­ny.

    - See more at:

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