African-American musical theater

African-American musical theater relates to the historic musical theater of the African American community, particularly prominent in New York City during the first half of the 20th Century.

Early History

Before the late 1890s, the image portrayed of African-Americans on Broadway was a "secondhand vision of black life created by European-American performers."[1] Stereotyped "coon songs" were popular, and blackface was common.

Will Marion Cook and Bob Cole brought black-written musical comedy to Broadway in 1898. Cook's Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk, an hour-long sketch that was the first all-black show to play in a prestigious Broadway house, Casino Theatre's Roof Garden. Cole's A Trip to Coontown was the first full-length New York musical comedy written, directed and performed exclusively by blacks. The approach of the two composers were diametrically opposed: Cole believed that African Americans should try to compete with European Americans by proving their ability to act similarly on- and offstage, while Cook thought African Americans should not imitate European Americans but instead create their own style.

Bob Cole and brothers John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson focused on elevating the lyrical sophistication of African American songs. Their first collaboration was "Louisiana Lize", a love song written in a new lyrical style that left out the watermelons, razors, and "hot mamas" typical of earlier "coon songs."[2]

Cole and the Johnson brothers went on to create musicals such as The Belle of Bridgeport, The Red Moon (with Joe Jordan), The Shoo-Fly Regiment, In Newport, Humpty Dumpty, and Sally in Our Alley (featuring Bob Cole's "Under The Bamboo Tree"). Bob Cole's suicide in 1911 ended "one of the promising musical comedy teams yet seen on Broadway".

National Recognition

Bert Williams and George Walker, called the "Two Real Coons", found fame in 1896 with a musical farce called The Gold Bug. The duo's performance of the cakewalk captured the audience's attention, and they soon became so closely associated with this dance that many people think of them as its originators. Williams met Walker in San Francisco in 1893, while they played Dahomeyans in an exhibit of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. They played different venues while putting together their act.

Williams and Walker were dropped from "Isham's Octoroons", one of the first African American companies to break from the minstrel style performance.[3] They then put together a number of small productions including A Lucky Coon, Sons of Ham, and The Policy Players, but their ultimate goal was to produce and star in their own Broadway musical. So they thought back to the times in San Francisco and produced In Dahomey (1903) alongside Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Jesse A. Shipp, and Will Marion Cook. Abyssinia (1906) and Bandanna Land (1908) also stood high in the Williams and Walker claim to fame. Their dreams of stardom come to life and they took musicals in a new direction, back to Africa. George Walker died during the run of Bandanna Land and his wife Ada Overton Walker substituted for him during the final week of the run.[4]

Crossover Shows

By 1911, Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, and George Walker had died. Will Marion Cook and the Johnson brothers, James and J. Rosamond, had pursued new careers and Bert Williams moved to the Ziegfeld Follies and black musical theater went into a hiatus.[5]

In 1915 ragtime composer Scott Joplin attempted to stage an opera Treemonisha in Harlem but the show was a financial and critical failure and Joplin was ruined and retreated into retirement until his death in 1917.

In May 1921, the surprising hit Shuffle Along made its way to New York City with almost $18,000 in debt. "One of the most popular black shows of the 1920s; began to tinker with the pattern of segregation". The creators of the astronomical point in history are The Dixie Duo, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who met at a party in Baltimore, Maryland in 1915. Their career was brief but successful. "Shuffle Along was a milestone in the development of the black musical, and it became the model by which all black musicals were judged until well into the 1930s."[6] F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who wrote the book for Shuffle Along (1921) had met in 1906, and began performing at the "Pekin Theater Stock Company" near Chicago from 1906 to 1909, along with other African American stars such as Harry Lawrence Freeman.

In 1921, Miller and Lyles appeared in a short film made in Photokinema, a sound-on-disc process, singing their composition "De Ducks", while Sissle and Blake made three films in the Lee De Forest Phonofilm sound-on-film process in 1923. These short films are a record of music similar to the work these four men were doing on stage at the time...

Lew Leslie's Blackbirds

In 1928, white producer and director Lew Leslie staged the first of a popular series of Blackbirds revues, featuring such talents as singers Adelaide Hall and Aida Ward, and dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and top-flight funnymen like Tim Moore. Further Blackbirds revues were staged in 1930 with Ethel Waters and Flournoy Miller, in 1933 with Edith Wilson, and in 1939 with Lena Horne and Tim Moore.[7] The key to Leslie’s success was the awesome talent he found. “Leslie managed to build his black revues around one or more dynamic performers, who could carry a modest show to success.”[8] Although these productions showcased black talent, they were almost completely created by white writers and composers. In an interview, Leslie made a fascinating claim that “They (white men) understand the colored man better than he does himself. Colored composers excel at spirituals, but their other songs are just 'what' (dialect for 'white') songs with Negro words."[9]

Porgy and Bess, the WPA, The Swing Mikado, and Carmen Jones

George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) – starring Will Marion Cook's wife Abbie Mitchell among many others – is the most famous black musical of the 1930s. It is called a black musical because of the African American cast, even though neither the music or plot is of the “Negro inspiration” like the creators proclaim. "Porgy and Bess marked the nadir in the history of black musical comedy, symbolizing the end of tradition and experimentation in black musical theater on Broadway".[10] This also led the Works Progress Administration to start the Federal Theater Project that established the Negro Unit with programs in twenty-two cities. This gave a new break to the struggling artists. The Negro Unit avoided musical comedies, but had a few musicals with black cast including Eubie Blake’s Swing It, which closed in 1937 and lessened hope for the Federal Theater Project.

However, one black musical comedy succeeded and twisted the new realm of musical theater, The Swing Mikado (1937), a "modernization" of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic operetta, The Mikado. This was followed by The Hot Mikado (1939).[11] Another modern version of the classics was Oscar Hammerstein II's Broadway musical Carmen Jones (1943), a version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen with an all-black cast.[12]


  1. Allen L. Woll, Black Musical Theater: From Coontown to Dreamgirls. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1989; pg. 1.
  2. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 15.
  3. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pp. 33-41.
  4. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 48.
  5. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 50.
  6. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 73.
  7. "Lew Leslie". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved 2009-03-10.
  8. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 98.
  9. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 97.
  10. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 175.
  11. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pp. 178–184.
  12. Woll, Black Musical Theater, pg. 189.

Further reading

See also

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