Shedding light on 'Voodoo Macbeth', its social commentary that still rings true 86 years later

Sandy Kenyon Image
Thursday, February 23, 2023
'Voodoo Macbeth' set in Harlem remembered for its social commentary
In honor of Black History Month, we shine the spotlight on a version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" that was staged in Harlem 86 years ago. Sandy Kenyon has more on the story.

HARLEM (WABC) -- In honor of Black History Month, we shine the spotlight on a version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" that was staged in Harlem 86 years ago.

It featured an all black cast and was staged by one of the most famous directors who ever lived: Orson Welles.

Welles moved the location of the play to Haiti and changed the Scottish witchcraft of the original Macbeth, to Haitian voodoo rituals. The result was praised by critics and the community.

Times were hard back in the mid 1930s, but when this show premiered, it was said that traffic couldn't move for 10 blocks around the Lafayette Theater at 132nd Street and 7th Street.

There was palpable excitement that night for Welles' version of "Macbeth". It offered hope for a troubled country during the Great Depression.

It was a production featuring African-Americans that provided a vision for the future, one that is still not fully realized almost a century later.

The Shakespeare classic was greeted by Harlem locals in 1936 with much enthusiasm.

The hit soon came to be called "Voodoo Macbeth", which is also the title of a recent movie about the landmark production.

It's a highly fictionalized version of what happened and it has faced criticism for playing fast and loose with the facts.

Ruth McLendon couldn't finish what she started due to a fatal illness, but lived long enough to see her vision realized by boy genius Welles.

He was just 20 at the time and still a few years from directing his movie masterpiece.

Welles is famous for "Citizen Kane", which has largely overshadowed his "Macbeth".

150 African-American performers were hired for it, including boxer turned actor Canada Lee, a formidable talent that too few people know about today.

Scholars have praised this production for drawing "uncomfortable attention to national problems" like racism, while turning a spotlight on social issues we still grapple with in the 21st century.

The website, "Open Culture", features striking images and notes that the play ran for 10 weeks before touring the country.

"Macbeth" was performed in front of segregated audiences, but represents a landmark in the history of American theater, one that has not received proper recognition until now.