FIFDA: “Voodoo Macbeth”, the forgotten African-American story of Orson Welles

There is sometimes a collective amnesia regarding the successes of black people in America », says Inger Tudor, the main actress of Voodoo Macbeth. Because Orson Welles’ first big hit was not Citizen Kanebut as a director of Voodoo Macbeth, in 1936. This first staging of a play by Shakespeare with a troupe made up exclusively of black actors was a milestone in the history of African-American theatre. This incredible epic is at the center of the magnificent film Voodoo Macbeth which had its European premiere on the occasion of the opening of the Fifda festival in Paris.

The International Festival of African Diaspora Films (Fifda) presented eleven new films in Paris from September 2 to 4, including the flagship production of this twelfth edition: Voodoo Macbeth, by the American director of Ethiopian origin Dagmawi Abebe. Meet lead actress Inger Tudor, who has already won several awards for her impactful portrayal of legendary character Rose McClendon.

RFI : What do you think happened when Orson Welles met Rose McClendon in 1936 ?

Inger Tudor : She met Orson Welles with his co-producer John Houseman. They were part of the Negro Theater Unit, a federal project launched as part of US President Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s to help struggling artists. When Houseman and McClendon saw Orson Welles, I think they were like, Who is this young ? Orson Welles was only 20 years old and had no professional experience. He had directed a play in high school and another during the summer, but he had no reputation as a director. Welles was just an actor, but McClendon and Houseman were very confident they made the right call. At that time, doing a production of a Shakespeare play with an all-black cast was such a big project and such a big challenge that they were really looking for someone very daring.

In the film, you play Rose McClendon. Who was this woman when she started the project macbeth for the Negro Theater Unit at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, New York ?

At that time, she was a Broadway diva. Her professional debut on Broadway dates back to 1919. Afterwards, she worked there fairly steadily until her death in 1936. Her final role [avant son rôle de femme du roi dans Voodoo Macbeth qu’elle a dû abandonner pendant les répétitions à cause de sa maladie, NDLR] was in 1935 in Mulatto of Langston Hughes who had written the role for her. She made 375 performances before suffering from pneumonia. She was well known and respected. From the research I have done, it seems that all of the plays she has performed have always been well received, as have her performances. She is one of the Broadway theater legends of that time.

Why did Orson Welles consider Voodoo Macbeth as “ the greatest success of [s]for life » ?

I think, because all the performances were sold out. Then the piece left and did very well on tour in the United States. Subsequently, Welles received great critical acclaim for his other projects, but I think they weren’t as successful in terms of audiences and revenue. This is partly why he considered this play his greatest success.

Dagmawi Abebe’s ‘Voodoo Macbeth’ tells the story of Orson Welles’ staging of a Shakespearean play with an all-black cast. © fifdaparis

Orson Welles was taking a very radical approach to his directing of Shakespeare, with an all-black cast, with black actors who weren’t really actors, because Welles was also hiring an electrician, an elevator operator, a singer, a champion boxing… In addition, he transposed the play from Scotland to Haiti to make a voodoo version of it, with African masks… In the film, a politician condemned the play as “ non american and there were a lot of protests outside the theatre. What sort of protests were these?

Part of the protests had to do with the Negro Theater Unit’s goal of giving people rights. Another concern was that Orson Welles was not going to hire enough black people. The Harlem neighborhood was predominantly black, so it was expected to give voice to black people in Harlem. Some even feared that he would make up whites as blacks with “blackface”. In short, there were all kinds of concerns about this play and the intentions of Orson Welles.

This play has become a benchmark in the history of African-American theater. Yet whenever someone talks about Orson Welles’ first big hit, they quote Citizen Kane that Welles shot four years after Voodoo Macbeth. Why Voodoo Macbeth has he fallen into oblivion ?

It’s a big question. There are so many reasons. Given the times and the racial tensions in the United States, this was perhaps superseded by the Civil Rights Movement. But I do not know. And even though the play was a big hit while on tour, I don’t know if it was well received by white audiences in the country. At that time, a lot of things produced with and by black actors in theater were relegated to Harlem or very specific areas, like certain neighborhoods in Detroit or predominantly black neighborhoods in Chicago. For this, people do not associate Voodoo Macbeth to Orson Welles. In the collective consciousness, this is not part of America’s history.

Me, for example, I did not even know Rose McClendon before reading the text during the preparation of the film Voodoo Macbeth. And I lived in New York for nine years. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this woman who was literally a Broadway diva. I just think that, up until a certain time, there is sometimes a collective amnesia regarding the successes of black people in America.

And as an African American actress, when did you first hear about the play? Voodoo Macbeth ?

The same thing: on the occasion of the reading of the text to prepare the film. It’s incredible. And like on the phenomenal character of Rose McClendon, I wanted to know more. I discovered that she was in charge of eleven other units of the Negro Theater Unit project in the United States. But again: even if you study acting, unless you have someone who is very engaged and aware of African-American history, neither this theater production nor the history of the Negro Theater Unit or the characters like Rose McClendon, are bound to be taught.

When I think of Hamlet black of the famous director Peter Brook or at the Swan Lake designed by South African choreographer Dada Masilo for black dancers, all of these productions have been highly acclaimed in recent decades in France and Europe. Today, the question raised in the film Voodoo Macbethi.e. the cast of black actors for a Shakespeare play, is it just seen as an interesting story from the past or are there still elements for current debates ?

In Shakespeare, there are always stories, myths, truths that are timeless. I like the idea of ​​an all-black cast when I think of the stories you see – at least in the United States. I often hear black actors say, We are tired of always seeing ourselves in slave stories. Certainly, some of these stories are wonderful, but black actors are also capable of doing and telling something else. Even today, a production like Voodoo Macbeth would be exceptional. And after seeing the film, I think viewers can really come away with a bigger, broader idea: people are people, no matter where they come from. We all struggle with the same issues. There are very ambitious people everywhere. This is the story of Macbeth and his wife.

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FIFDA: “Voodoo Macbeth”, the forgotten African-American story of Orson Welles