Orson Welles: Voodoo Macbeth

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Courtesy of 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.