Honoring the rich legacy of African-American theater, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), which was founded on June 5, 1940, in the basement of the 135th Street Branch of The New York Public Library. Founded by playwright Abram Hill and actor Frederick O’Neal, and other actors in Harlem, the ANT was formed in the tradition of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program discontinued by Congress in 1939. Working with meager resources, the principal founders, along with 18 other artists, incorporated ANT as a cooperative, and all members shared in the expenses and profits. The theatre’s business model was parallel to its artistic policy of ensemble acting in lieu of individual leading roles.
The all-black cast of Anna Lucasta was the ANT's first major success on Broadway. Despite the ANT’s gradual advancement to Broadway and the international stage, the organization remained largely faithful to its four main goals: 1) to develop a permanent acting company trained in the arts and crafts of the theatre that also reflected the special gifts, talents, and attributes of African Americans; 2) to produce plays that honestly and with integrity interpreted, illuminated, and criticized contemporary black life and the concerns of black people (and particularly the Harlem community); 3) to maintain an affiliation with, and provide leadership for, other black theatre groups throughout the nation; and 4) to utilize its resources to develop racial pride in the theatre, rather than racial apathy.
For five years, 1940-1945, the theatre’s productions were staged in the basement of the 135th Street Branch Library known as “Harlem’s Little Library Theatre,” which was specially renovated for the group. Dr. Lawrence Reddick, then curator of the Schomburg Collection, helped create a home for the ANT here at the library, rent-free. By consistently demonstrating its commitment to community values and encouraging a strong work ethic among its members, the ANT became a source of pride and honor for its members and the community it served. In many ways, the group’s formation was a response to the clarion call of determination and collective work from the Harlem Renaissance that was still reverberating in the 1940s. Because of the strong personal commitments of its founding members, the ANT thrived for one decade.
Fundamentally, the ANT sought to push the boundaries of black theatre throughout those years, experimenting with modernist theatrical tropes, and producing ambitious, original works by black playwrights. Ultimately, the American Negro Theatre became one of the most influential black theater organizations of the 1940s, and ignited the careers of a number of famous black actors including Harry Belafonte, Alice Childress, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Earle Hyman.