The question — about one of his college teaching gigs; there have been so many, at City College of New York, NYU, Miami, others that don’t come immediately to mind — makes Robert Macbeth cock his head and gaze into the distance as he sift through his memories. Nearing 80, he’s got a lot of them, not all of them the kind that fit on gauzy greeting cards.
The name of one school, suggested by his visitor, draws a sardonic smile. “Oh, yeah, I taught there for a while,” he agrees. “I was the only black member of the faculty, as they repeatedly and proudly pointed out. “Fortunately, I was an older man by then, and I no longer slapped guys for saying dumb [bleep.]”
Time was, Robert Macbeth was an angry young man. An angry young black man, he would have said back then, tired of the presumptuous white dudes (his words, again) who had first closed out his dreams of being an Air Force pilot, then snuffed his budding Broadway career.
But those days are gone. And so are the days when he was the talk of the theatrical world, when his Harlem playhouse was remapping the racial boundaries of American drama while outraging liberal white critics and militant black revolutionaries alike. All that’s left of that time are some yellowed playbills and posters scattered here and there around the barren little North Miami studio apartment in which Macbeth lives.
He’s OK with that, which perhaps surprises even Macbeth himself a little bit. “I’m here,” he says, meaning not in this apartment but among the breathing. “I woke up this morning. You reach 80 and you have a different attitude. A little more laissez-faire.”
And the years have not been kind to either his body or his bank account. Macbeth’s legs are swollen, mottled and crosshatched with scars from multiple operations to save his failing circulatory system; a chronic bacterial infection has left him with an open wound on his buttocks for years. He moves around only with the aid of a walker. A charitable foundation provides him with frozen meals (though he had no microwave oven with which to heat them). Otherwise, he survives on a little bit more than $1,000 a month in Social Security payments.
“And a lot of nerve,” he adds.
Nonetheless, he’s still trying to get some projects off the ground. One, hearkening back to his first love, is a television series about early black aviatrixes. Another is his memoirs, which he has been working on for a while, writing them in small pieces as he scrapes together research and chats with his dwindling number of old friends. A laptop computer that he could take with him on trips or use in bed when laid up by surgery would be an inestimable aid, he says.
Many of the people Macbeth worked and played and argued and drank with in the early 1960s when he was a man about the New York stage — studying at the legendary Actors Studio, sniffing out small but promising roles stage roles, and then finally kicking over the table to launch his own repertory theater — are not here. It was heady stuff for a young guy from Charleston, S.C. who’d grown up wanting to be a pilot, but abandoned the idea after four fruitless years in a barely desegregated U.S. Air Force in the mid-1950s. Then, attending City College of New York on the GI Bill, Macbeth had appeared in some student plays and been bitten hard by the acting bug.
He had a fair amount of success for a young actor, picking off understudy roles behind James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Louis Gossett. But he had a dawning awareness that theatrical casting was anything but color-blind.
. “A role here and a role there,” remembers Macbeth. “You’d think you were doing OK, but you’d rub shoulders with the other actors and you realized they could go downtown and there were a thousand jobs for them.”
At the same time, Macbeth was mulling over the writings of Kenneth B. Clark, one of his psychology professors at CCNY. Clark had done a lot of pioneering work on black self-image — his experiments in which little African-American girls preferred playing with white dolls had been a major factor in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that desegregated American schools — and he had recently turned his sights on the debilitating effect of ghettos.
“Clark was saying that if we were going to be ghettoized into Harlem — if that’s the way it’s going to be — then we have to make something of Harlem, we can’t just wait for white people to change their minds,” Macbeth says. “And for about a minute there in the 1960s, it looked like maybe he was onto something.”
In a lucky coincidence, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were starting to expand their aid to the arts. Several groups had gotten grants to put on minority-staffed productions in New York’s downtown theater district. Macbeth’s idea was the reverse: to put a black-owned-and-operated theater to work in Harlem, where its work could be seen by black audiences.
And he had a precedent: the Lafayette Theatre, a major part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Originally a private venue, the theater had been supported with federal money during the Depression, including a renowned Orson Welles production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in 19th century Haiti, in which voodoo priestesses replaced witches as avatars of chaos and conflict.
“I saw a photo of the theater marquee, with MACBETH in big letters and a huge crowd of people gathered around, and I could not put that down,” laughs Macbeth. “I staged a couple of plays, and then I asked the Ford Foundation for some money. They had $20 million to give away, and what I wanted was nothing compared to that. All I was asking was $20,000 or $40,000.”
He got it, and much more. Eventually Macbeth’s New Lafayette Theatre would premiere 16 dramas, many of them written by Ed Bullins, whose work would make him one of the most eminent black playwrights of the 20th century. Together Macbeth and Bullins became a major spearhead of what was called the Black Arts Movement, which preached that black artists should forge their own paths rather than those dictated by white critics and audiences.
The path Macbeth and Bullins forged was often rocky. Whites were often appalled by the rough language and lurid violence of the ghetto tales they told. And Harlem’s increasingly militant black nationalist movement thought they were subverting the revolution. “I had a bit of a target on me,” Macbeth admits, “because my theater was not going along with the program.” When a fistfight broke out at the theater between a black revolutionary and some of Macbeth’s friends, the place was burned to the ground the next night.
The blaze didn’t killed the theater, but politics and economics eventually did. The foundations grew bored and moved on, taking their grants with them, and there was no way to replace those dollars. “There was no money in Harlem,” Macbeth says. “People didn’t have money for that. You couldn’t put ticket prices at the level to pay for what has to be done.”
But the theater left its mark on history.
“Macbeth was very, very influential in the Black Arts Movement,” says Sybil Johnson, whose doctoral thesis Robert Macbeth and the New Lafayette Theatre: The Quest for a New Form of African-American Theatre was published as a book by Florida State in 1996.
“He had the vision to found a company, find space and use it effectively. And at a time when it was very difficult for black actors to find roles, he put a lot of them to work....Anybody familiar with the history of black theater knows what a debt it owes to Bob Macbeth.” Agrees Joe Adler, the artistic director of GableStage: “Bob was behind one of the most esteemed African-American theaters in American history. I have enormous respect for him.”
After the end of the New Lafayette Theatre, Macbeth launched a successful second career in academia, teaching drama at several colleges, including the University of Miami. He also picked up the occasional TV and film role, including a couple of appearances in Miami Vice. Three decades later, offers in both teaching and acting have finally dried up.
No longer young and no longer angry, he’s got time and his memories.