• Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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    The W.P.A. Federal Theatre Negro Unit [presents] Macbeth by William Shakespeare
    • Date
    • between 1936 and 1938
    • Creator
    • Velonis, Anthony (artist)
    • Description
    • Part of the Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress).
    • Rights
    • No known restrictions.
    • Partner
    • Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  • Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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    "Macbeth," by William Shakespeare, photo file 'A'
    • Date
    • 1936
    • Description
    • Photograph of unidentified actor in "Voodoo Macbeth," written by playwright, actor and director Orson Welles, and performed by the Negro Theatre Project’s New York unit.
    • Rights
    • No known US copyright restrictions.
    • Partner
    • New York Public Library
    • Contributing Institution
    • Billy Rose Theatre Division. The New York Public Library
    • Is Part Of
    • Billy Rose Theatre Collection (NYPL)

  • Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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    "Macbeth," by William Shakespeare, photo file 'A'
    • Date
    • 1936
    • Description
    • Scene from "Voodoo Macbeth," written by playwright, actor and director Orson Welles, and performed by the Negro Theatre Project’s New York unit.
    • Rights
    • No known US copyright restrictions.
    • Partner
    • New York Public Library
    • Contributing Institution
    • Billy Rose Theatre Division. The New York Public Library
    • Is Part Of
    • Billy Rose Theatre Collection (NYPL)

  • Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 

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    WPA Federal Theater Project in New York:Negro Theatre Unit:"Macbeth"
    • Contributing Institution
    • Billy Rose Theatre Division. The New York Public Library

Voodoo Macbeth, created by playwright, actor and director Orson Welles, was the most popular theatre performance of the Negro Theatre Project’s New York unit. The play was performed at Lafayette Theater in Harlem, New York in 1936. While the original Macbeth took place in Scotland, Welles set his version in the Caribbean island of Haiti in the court of King Henri Christophe—a former slaver and leader in the Haitian Revolution.  

Welles 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. Welles also created set design looked like a Caribbean jungle.  He recreated this theme by instructing his set-design team to paint large and green tropical leaves in the theater’s backdrop.

Welles captivated audiences by making his own version of Macbeth filled with dynamic performances and exuberant imagery on stage.  But plenty of controversy surrounded this play during its run at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. Some critics felt that Welles, by casting an entire company of African-American actors, strove to mock them through comedy because they were acting and speaking in the “Shakespearian way.”  Other critics felt that Welles’ casting of African American actors allowed these actors to show their talent and tenacity during performances in front of segregated audiences. In part because of its African American actors and Caucasian director in Welles, Voodoo Macbeth highlighted tensions within its audiences. Like many of the Federal Theatre Project productions, it raised contemporary social issues that for some drew uncomfortable attention to national problems.