Robert Macbeth, founder of Harlem's new Lafayette Theater, dies at 89

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Robert Macbeth, founder of Harlem's new Lafayette Theater, dies at 89
Robert Macbeth, right, directing Carl Lee, left, and Thelma Oliver in a rehearsal for Ed Bullins’s play “In the Wine Time,” the New Lafayette Theater’s first major production, in New York, Nov. 15, 1967. Macbeth, founder of Harlem’s New Lafayette Theater, a vibrant space for actors and playwrights that became a seedbed for the emerging Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, died on Oct. 31, 2023, in a medical rehabilitation facility in North Miami Beach, Fla. He was 89. (Eddie Hausner/The New York Times)

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Robert Macbeth, a rising Black actor in the New York theater scene, was sitting in a Greenwich Village bar in September 1963, getting a drink before going onstage for an off-Broadway improv show. The evening news played in the background.

“I happened to look up and there was a flash, and the flash was about the four little girls getting killed in Birmingham,” he said in a 1967 interview, recalling the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “And there I was, sitting in a Village bar, with a scotch in my hand.”

He went onstage that night, and, rather than following the show’s loose routine, he began shouting, walking up and down the aisles, getting in the faces of the mostly white crowd.

“I must have scared the audience half to death,” he recalled in the interview. But rather than absorb his message, they seemed to take it as entertainment: “They loved it, but that wasn’t the idea.”

Macbeth, distraught over his inability to convey his anger and sadness, stopped acting after that night in 1963 and, in his words, went into “exile" from the stage. He worked in a bookstore, taught acting classes and tried to process the violent changes rippling through Black America in the 1960s.

Slowly, an idea took form: Black actors and playwrights could never be fully effective in white-dominated spaces. They needed their own. So, in 1967, he gathered together a troupe of more than 30 actors and artists to open the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem.

“It is a true community theater,” The New York Times wrote in 1972, “in touch with its audience, and nurturing actors, playwrights and technicians in surroundings that are flexible and stimulating to the theatrical imagination.”

The theater existed for only five years. But in that time, it became a vital outpost for Black culture in New York and a centerpiece of the emerging Black Arts Movement. Macbeth brought on playwright Ed Bullins as his artist in residence and welcomed a steady stream of Black luminaries as audience members — during one performance, singer Nina Simone got up and danced in the aisle.

The goal of the theater, one 1972 playbill noted, was “to activate the minds of the community audience to considerations of their existence from points of view consistent with that community’s place in history and its efforts towards the future.”

Macbeth died Oct. 31 in a medical rehabilitation facility in North Miami Beach, Florida. He was 89. His son Jamie Macbeth said the cause of his death, which was not widely reported, was lung cancer.

Robert Douglas Macbeth Jr. was born March 25, 1934, in Queens and grew up there and in Charleston, South Carolina, where most of his extended family lived. His father was a postal worker; his mother, Helen (Lee) Macbeth, taught preschool.

Robert enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta but left to join the Air Force during the Korean War. After his discharge, he moved to New York to study acting. He attended City College for a time, but he became frustrated with the academic approach to theater and left without a degree.

By the late 1950s, he was finding regular work on television and in New York theaters. In 1962, he made his Broadway debut in the play “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright.”

Still, success left him unfulfilled.

“What I was doing seemed detached and unimportant in the brimming national upheaval of the early 1960s,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir. “No, I wouldn’t find my Zen on Broadway.”

His first location was the original Lafayette Theater, on 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, which operated from 1912 to 1951 and had been home to one of the country’s first all-Black ensembles. In 1936, under the direction of Orson Welles, it had put on an all-Black version of “Macbeth,” set on a fictional Caribbean island.

With grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, Macbeth spent most of 1967 remodeling the theater and put on two repertory plays that winter. But before he could present his first big show, “In the Wine Time,” an original work by Bullins, the theater burned down.

Macbeth suspected arson at the hands of a disgruntled neighbor, but no one was ever charged. He found a new location, five blocks north on Seventh Avenue, and fully opened the New Lafayette Theater, with Bullins’ work, at the end of 1968.

He presented a wide variety of plays, including earthy depictions of urban life like those by Bullins, and experimental, free-form performances that drew on African ritual — including the wordless “A Black Time for Black Folks,” the work that inspired Simone to start dancing.

“He had the unique ability to mix what we would call the street, the depiction of one aspect of the Black community, and at the same time to present very high ideas where we raise the debt and foretell the future,” artist Ademola Olugebefola, who was the New Lafayette’s resident scenic designer at the time, said in a phone interview.

In addition to Bullins, the New Lafayette Theater boasted a long list of affiliated Black artists who found career success onstage, in film and on television, among them Whitman Mayo, who played Grady Wilson on “Sanford and Son,” and Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon Robinson on “Sesame Street.”

Macbeth also published a journal, Black Theatre, that connected the New York scene with similar communities in other cities, especially in the South.

Faced with funding cuts, Macbeth was forced to close the theater in 1972. He spent the next decade teaching and directing, as well as occasionally appearing on TV and in films. In 1985 he moved with his family to Miami, where he continued his engagement with the theater and film.

In 1991, he married Helen Ellis. They later divorced.

Along with his son James, he is survived by two other sons, Andrew and Douglas; two granddaughters; and his siblings, Asad Rashid and James, Cornelius, Adrienne, Deanna and Tobias Macbeth.

In 1968, while Macbeth was refurbishing the theater’s new home, a German film crew interviewed him for a TV documentary about the New Lafayette. At one point, Macbeth explained his ideas about the sort of radical theater he was creating and how it related to the culture around him.

“It’s got to do with it in a way that is very subversive,” he said. “It suggests that the artist himself with the things that he has on his mind and in his heart comes out and speaks to the people.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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