Voodoo Macbeth

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Poster by Anthony Velonis
Written by
Date premiered April 14, 1936
Place premiered Lafayette Theatre, Harlem, New York
Original language English
Genre Tragedy

The Voodoo Macbeth is a common nickname for the Federal Theatre Project's 1936 New York production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Orson Welles adapted and directed the production, moved the play's setting from Scotland to a fictional Caribbean island, recruited an entirely African American cast, and earned the nickname for his production from the Haitian vodou that fulfilled the rôle of Scottish witchcraft.[1]:86 A box office sensation, the production is regarded as a landmark theatrical event for several reasons: its innovative interpretation of the play, its success in promoting African-American theatre, and its role in securing the reputation of its 20-year-old director.


A still from the production, illustrating the use of Caribbean costumes, and skeleton imagery in the decor

The Works Project Administration was an attempt at an economic stimulus during the Great Depression, under its aegis was Federal Project Number One responsible for generating jobs in the arts for which the Federal Theater Project was created. At the lobbying of civil rights activists[citation needed] a Negro Theater Unit was created. It was split into two halves, the "Contemporary Branch" to create theatre on contemporary black issues, and the "Classic Branch", to perform classic drama.[1]:88 The aim was to provide a point of entry into the theatre workforce for black actors and stagehands, and to raise community pride by performing classic plays without reference to the color of the actors.[1]:88–89


Shakespeare's play is about the downfall of a usurper in medieval Scotland, who is encouraged in his actions by three witches. The central idea behind Welles's production was to perform the text straight, but to use costumes and sets that alluded to Haiti in the 19th century, specifically during the reign of the slave-turned-emperor Henri Christophe.[2]:222 Although the main reason for this choice was that it was an appropriate setting for an all-black cast, Welles felt that it also enhanced the play's realism: he thought the production's popularity was partly due to the fact that the idea of voodoo was more credible to a contemporary audience than was medieval witchcraft.[3]:100

In many productions, the character of Hecate, the Queen of the Witches, is often cut. Instead, Welles turned the character into a pivotal figure. Performed by Eric Burroughs as a huge man with a bullwhip,[1]:86–88 Hecate ends the play with the line, "The charm's wound up", transferred from Act 1.[2]:224 Welles's 1948 film version of Macbeth, in which Hecate does not appear, also ends with this line.

The production used a single, unchanging set of a castle in a jungle. The backdrops featured stylized palm trees and skeleton imagery.[2]:229–231

It is not certain whether the production removed references to Scotland from the text. Welles's promptbook keeps them intact, but in the surviving film record of the production's climax, the line "Hail, King of Scotland" is truncated to "Hail, King".[1]:89


The Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth was universally known as the Voodoo Macbeth in advance of its presentation.[2]:229

The leadership roles in the Negro Theater Unit were all white. John Houseman, director of the NTP, invited the young white director Orson Welles to direct a production of Macbeth.[3]:99 Although he was only 20 Welles was already a major radio star, and seized the opportunity to prove himself as a promising director.[3]:99 The designer was Nat Karson.[2]:220 The lighting was created by Abe Feder, one of the first full-time lighting designers.[2]:230 Feder had a difficult relationship with Welles, whom he believed was too young and ignorant of the practicalities of theatre; he continued to hold this opinion when interviewed decades later.[2]:232

Since the production's hierarchy was inherently racist, Welles also faced some difficulties in asserting authority with the black cast and crew.[2]:224 However, Welles won over the cast with his youthful energy and his warmth.[2]:224 Black cast and crew members interviewed decades later said that they felt included in the creative process.[1]:88 Welles, who was wealthy from his radio work, pleased everyone by cramming the rehearsal space with food and drink.[3]:103

The production opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. It then had a brief run on Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre, before touring local high schools.[1]:88–89[3]:109 It then toured the country, including performances in Bridgeport, Hartford, Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and finally returning to New York at the Majestic Theatre in Brooklyn (October 4–17).[4][dead link] A few minutes of the production can be seen in the 1937 film We Work Again, a U.S. government documentary about the work projects[1]:86 that is in the public domain and can be viewed online. The production was invited to London, but Welles declined because he was trying to secure his career in New York.[3]:110


The cast and crew numbered over one hundred people, but only five of them were professional actors.[2]:223 Welles cast Jack Carter as Macbeth and Edna Thomas as Lady Macbeth. Both were light-skinned and wore dark makeup in order to avoid looking different from the rest of the cast.[3]:101–102 Thomas played Lady Macbeth as a mother figure to Macbeth.[3]:102 Canada Lee played Banquo.[1]:86–88 Lee met Welles prior to his involvement with the production, at a performance of Stevedore. The audience had been whipped into a frenzied shouting match, and Lee rescued Welles from being attacked by another audience member wielding a knife.[5]

Carter was a former criminal and an alcoholic, but Welles cast him despite being warned of his habit of disappearing for weeks on binges. Carter understood the importance of the production to his career and kept his drinking under control during the Harlem run.[3]:101 Welles expended a great deal of time on helping Carter channel his adrenalin into his performance.[2]:226 The two men bonded and hit the nightspots of Harlem together after rehearsals.[2]:226–228 His behavior became so troublesome during the Broadway run that he had to be replaced by Maurice Ellis, who had held the role of Macduff. (Ellis's Macbeth appears in the film).[3]:101–102 Welles later claimed to have played Macbeth himself in blackface after Ellis fell ill one night on tour in Indianapolis.

The role of Hecate, which Welles changed from the witch queen of the original to that of a male Voodoo priest, was played by Eric Burroughs, the son of postal worker and Shakespearean reader Charles Burroughs and Williana Jones Burroughs, a teacher and Communist who moved to the USSR and became an announcer and editor for the English-language broadcasts of Radio Moscow (heard worldwide during World War II announcing, "This is Moscow calling.") Sent to Hamburg, Germany, after high school to study political science, Eric Burroughs instead chose to study with acclaimed theatrical producer and director Erwin Piscator, regarded as the foremost exponent of "Epic Theater," a form that emphasized the socio-political content of drama. While in Europe, Burroughs appeared in a Piscator production of The Good Soldier Schweik as well as in various Shakespeare plays including The Merchant of Venice.[6] The New York Times noted that Burroughs’ concluding line, "The charm’s wound up!" at the fall of the closing curtain prompted a 15-minute frenzy of cheering throughout the 1200-seat Lafayette Theatre.[7]

Despite the fact that few professional African-American actors were available and many of the cast members had never acted in Shakespeare before, Welles believed that they showed a better understanding of the rhythm of the iambic pentameter than many professionals.[3]:102

Welles also hired a team of African drummers, some of whom were knowledgeable about voodoo practices, to accompany the witch's speeches with drumbeats.[3]:108 They were led by Sierra Leonean drummer Asadata Dafora.[2]:223

Cast list[edit]

The cast and crew of Macbeth are credited in the original production notebook[8]:4–5 and in The Theatre of Orson Welles by Richard France.[9]:181–182

  • Duncan (The King) … Service Bell
  • Malcolm (Son to the King) … Wardell Saunders
  • Macduff … Maurice Ellis
  • Banquo … Canada Lee
  • Macbeth … Jack Carter
  • Ross … Frank David
  • Lennox … Thomas Anderson
  • Siward … Archie Savage
  • First Murderer … George Nixon
  • Second Murderer … Kenneth Renwick
  • The Doctor … Laurence Chenault
  • The Priest … Al Watts
  • First Messenger … Philandre Thomas
  • Second Messenger … Herbert Glynn[8]:4
  • The Porter … J. Lewis Johnson
  • Seyton … Larrie Lauria
  • A Lord … Charles Collins
  • First Captain … Lisle Grenidge
  • Second Captain … Ollie Simmons[8]:4
  • First Chamberlain … William Cumberbatch[8]:4
  • Second Chamberlain … Benny Tattnall[8]:4
  • First Court Attendant … Chauncey Worrell[8]:4
  • Second Court Attendant … George Thomas
  • First Page Boy … Sarah Turner[8]:4
  • Second Page Boy … Beryle Banfield[8]:4
  • Lady Macduff … Marie Young
  • Lady Macbeth … Edna Thomas
  • The Duchess … Alma Dickson[8]:4
  • The Nurse … Virginia Girvin[8]:4
  • Young Macduff … Bertram Holmes[8]:4
  • Daughter to Macduff … Wanda Macy[8]:4
  • Fleance … Carl Crawford[8]:4
  • Hecate … Eric Burroughs[8]:4
  • First Witch … Wilhelmina Williams
  • Second Witch … Josephine Williams
  • Third Witch … Zola King
  • Witch Doctor … Abdul

Court Ladies — Helen Carter, Carolyn Crosby, Eveyln Davis, Ethel Drayton, Helen Brown, Aurelia Lawson, Margaret Howard, Olive Wannamake, Evelyn Skipworth, Aslean Lynch[8]:4

Court Gentlemen — Herbert Glynn, Jose Miralda, Jimmy Wright, Otis Morse, Merritt Smith, Walter Brogsdale, Harry George Grant

Soldiers — Benny Tattnall, Herman Patton, Ernest Brown, Ivan Lewis, Richard Ming, George Spelvin, Albert Patrick, Chauncey Worrell, Albert McCoy, William Clayton Jr., Allen Williams, William Cumberbatch, Henry J. Williams, Amos Laing, Louis Gilbert, Theodore Howard, Leonardo Barros, Ollie Simmons, Ernest Brown, Merritt Smith, Harry George Grant, Herbert Glynn, Jimmy Wright, George Thomas, Clifford Davis, Frederick Gibson,[8]:5 Emanuel Middleton, Thomas Dixon[9]:182

Witch Women — Juanita Baker, Beryle Banfield, Sybil Moore, Nancy Hunt, Jacqueline Ghant Martin, Fannie Suber, Ethel Millner, Dorothy Jones,[8]:5 Mildred Taylor, Hilda French[9]:182

Witch Men — Archie Savage, Charles Hill, Leonardo Barros, Howard Taylor, Amos Laing, Allen Williams, Ollie Simmons, Theodore Howard

Cripples — Clyde Gooden, Clarence Potter, Milton Lacey, Hudson Prince, Theodore Howard,[8]:5 Cecil McNair[9]:182

Voodoo Women — Lena Halsey, Jean Cutler, Effie McDowell, Irene Ellington, Marguerite Perry, Essie Frierson, Ella Emanuel, Ethel Drayton, Evelyn Davis Voodoo Men — Ernest Brown, Howard Taylor, Henry J. Williams, Louis Gilbert, William Clayton Jr., Albert McCoy, Merritt Smith, Richard Ming,[8]:5 Halle Howard[9]:182

Drummers — James Cabon, James Martha, Jay Daniel,[8]:5 Moses Myers, McLean Hughes[9]:182


Before the production opened, the Harlem Communists tried to agitate the community against the project, wrongly believing that Welles had cast black actors in order to create a comic or burlesque version of Shakespeare. The theatre was picketed throughout rehearsals. One man attempted to slash Welles's face with a razor, but Canada Lee, a former boxer, stopped him.[3]:104

According to Welles, the anger was suddenly replaced "for no reason at all" by widespread excitement and pride in the community as the opening night approached.[3]:105 The "Voodoo Macbeth" defied all expectations, becoming a boxoffice sensation. Seventh Avenue had to be closed for 10 blocks on either side of the theatre and the opening night played to a packed house, and continued to do so for nine weeks.[3]:107

Most reviewers, including those from the New York Times and the New York Daily News loved the production, praising its energy and excitement. However, Carter was criticized for poor verse delivery, and for seeming more interested in displaying his physique than acting. One reviewer, Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune, was negative about the entire cast, accusing the actors of being inaudible and timid. In response, one of the African drummers created a voodoo doll of Hammond, stuck pins in it, and encouraged Welles to take responsibility for any torments Hammond suffered as a result. Welles says he found this amusing, until Hammond died shortly afterward.[3]:109


Using the original 1936 promptbook, in 1977, the Henry Street Settlement's New Federal Theatre revived the production, starring Lex Monson and Esther Rolle.

In 2001, Lenwood Sloan created the "Vo-Du Macbeth," inspired in part by the 1936 Federal Theatre production.

These and other "revivals" are discussed in the essay collection "Weyward Macbeth".

The National Black Arts Festival announced their plans to revive the play in 2012 in Atlanta, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The American Century Theater produced the play in 2013.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kliman, Bernice W. (1992). Macbeth. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719027314. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Callow, Simon (1996). Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0670867225. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Leaming, Barbara (1985). Orson Welles, A Biography. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-618-15446-3. 
  4. ^ Weyward Macbeth 243
  5. ^ Quinn, Susan (2008). Quinn, Susan. Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Time. New York: Walker & Co. 
  6. ^ family archives
  7. ^ Wendy Smith, “The Play that Electrified Harlem,” Civilization, January–February 1996.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "Production Notebook from New York production of Macbeth". American Memory: New Deal Stage. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2015-01-12. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f France, Richard (1977). The Theatre of Orson Welles. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press. ISBN 0-8387-1972-4. 

External links[edit]