"It's getting dark on old Broadway". African American theatre of the Harlem Renaissance in search of the right direction

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1 Blackface minstrelsy: the ancestors of Black theatre

2 Black musical theatre: From Broadway to Harlem nightclubs and back
2.1 The special role of musical theatre
2.2 Vaudeville and the first black musical comedies (1880-1910)
2.3 The Term of Exile (1910-1920)
2.4 Shuffle Along - Back to Broadway (1921-1929)

3 Black Drama: In search of the right direction
3.1 Protest drama or folk theatre?
3.2 Folk drama and the Little Theatre movement
3.3 Black drama on Broadway

4 Dilemmas of the Black performer: dangers and chances of going mainstream
4.1 The double audience
4.2 Imitating white material or creating new black material
4.3 White writers and producers staging "black" drama
4.4 Segregation and discrimination



It's getting very dark on Old Broadway

You see the change in ev'ry cabaret

Just like an eclipse of the moon,

Ev'ry café now has the dancing coon.

Pretty choc'late ladies

Shake and shimmie ev'rywhere

Real dark-town entertainers hold the stage,

You must black up to be the latest rage

("It's getting dark on old Broadway" from

the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922, qtd. in Woll 76)

When Gilda Gray performed "It's Getting Dark on Old Broadway" in the opening show of the song-and-dance revue Ziegfeld Follies on 5 June 1922 she eternalized Broadway's latest trend (Woll 76). Black entertainment proliferated in the Theatre District along Broadway in the 1920s and it seemed that black shows had made it into the limelight of success. There was, however, a different 'dark' side to the developments of the black performance scene.

To many leading intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, the new darkness on Broadway looked rather bleak. Important figures like W. E. B. Du Bois who campaigned for a new racial identity through cultural creation (cf. Du Bois “Criteria of Negro Art” ) feared that the new phenomenon of black productions reaching out for mainstream success would betray their cause. In his speech at the NAACP's annual conference, he famously claimed that "all Art is propaganda and ever must be" (Du Bois par. 29). Catering to the white public's demands (pars. 33, 35), as the successful Black Broadway musicals did, would mean failing the cause, according to Du Bois. While some scholars argue that theatre and performance in the New Negro era played "a pivotal role in the evolution of Black Nationalism" (Krasner 1), those are opposed by a number of authors who look upon the Harlem Renaissance as a failure (cf. Baker xiii, Neal 39, Krasner 95f.).

In the following paper, I will look into the question of whether the performers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance really failed to contribute to a change of white America's attitude toward the African American race (Krasner 14). One point at issue will be whether the increasing success and commercialisation of Black theatre counteracted the objectives of racial renewal or if on the contrary, they were a means to an end.

In order to analyse what circumstances playwrights and performers had to overcome, I will outline the development of Black theatre since the 19th century. As Harlem Renaissance intellectuals aimed to put the biased images behind them, it is necessary to investigate thoroughly what these images were and where they came from. Hence, I will start my analysis by looking at minstrelsy and its influences on early Black musical theatre. Black dramatists and drama theorists were still struggling to reach a consensus on the issue of mainstream whereas musical theatre eventually cut its own path to commercial success on Broadway. This controversy will be summarised in chapter 3. Subsequently, I will research the seemingly unresolvable dilemmas Black artists had to deal with in order to eventually be able to evaluate the achievements and failures of the Harlem Renaissance theatre.

Theatre and performance were not chosen as the subject of discussion at random. In fact, oral and musical expression have always been at the centre of African American culture (Scott 427). Performance was the primary mode of communication when literature and written language in general were not available to the oppressed African Americans during times of slavery (Krasner 11). When Du Bois produced his pageant Star of Ethiopia in 1911, he was convinced that theatre was "the most accessible medium" for the purpose of changing the standing of the African American race (Hay 2).

Although musical theatre and drama had to deal with some genre-specific problems both genres need to be taken into account when assessing the impact of the performing arts. I will not include the role of dance in this study as this would mean to extend the topic to questions of gender roles and gender stereotypes.

1 Blackface minstrelsy: the ancestors of Black theatre

The Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance suffered from a heavy legacy. Not only did they have to "remove the mask of racial stereotypes" (Buck 795) in the figurative sense. At the beginning of the 20th century, white audiences had become accustomed to and appreciative of minstrel shows, in which blacks and whites performed songs and dances in burnt cork blackface. Minstrelsy and the blackface 'mask' became a byword for racial stereotypes and discrimination (cf. Mahar 5-6; Kenrick). Houston A. Baker Jr. describes the minstrel mask as a "space of habitation … for that deep-seated denial of the indisputable humanity of … descendants from the continent of Africa" (17). Baker goes so far as to refer to the minstrel mask as a symbol which was designed to remind whites of the inferiority of African Americans, an inferiority which makes them "fit for lynching" (21). The only theme of minstrel shows was in fact the ridicule and thus humiliation of Blacks. Black people were shown as dim-witted buffoons who spent their days doing nothing but singing and dancing (cf. Kenrick).

In the 1830s, white minstrel performer Thomas Darthmouth Rice became famous for his representation of Jim Crow. The number was a typical minstrel act: In blackface, Rice acted the role of a black slave. He performed a song and dance, the "Jumpin' Jim Crow", the steps of which he had supposedly learnt from a slave (Baker 19). The representation of Jim Crow became famous. As a result of its popularity, 'Jim Crow' became an adjective and the segregation statutes became known as the 'Jim Crow laws' in the 1890s (Woodward 7). This example shows that blackface and minstrelsy shows, based on the lampooning of African Americans, had become part of American cultural life. Minstrelsy was the popular form of musical theatre during the 19th century. As I will discuss in the following chapter, the minstrel shows led to stereotypical images of Black people that would burden Black performers for generations. Minstrelsy was however the path for Black artists to enter the stage (Woll 1) and despite all its degrading rituals it needs to be acknowledged as an ancestor of Black theatre, particularly of Black musical theatre.

2 Black musical theatre: From Broadway to Harlem nightclubs and back

2.1 The special role of musical theatre

When looking at performances during the Harlem Renaissance, Black musical theatre deserves special attention for several reasons. First of all, white Americans loved black music. As much as the singing black slave was a stereotypical minstrel image, talent in dance music was one of the few things that black people were recognised for. The syncopated tunes of ragtime were immensely popular from 1890. Black popular and dance music was exciting and new to the ears of white America (Riis 36-37). During the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, white people went up to Harlem "for the music and the entertainment", as Eubie Blake phrases it (cf. Huggins 339-340). Even when black theatres devoted to non-music drama emerged in Harlem, the picture of New York's black theatre scene was still dominated by musical theatre and music clubs from a white perspective (Krasner 135). Therefore, music was the Black performers' key to get the attention of a white audience.


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"It's getting dark on old Broadway". African American theatre of the Harlem Renaissance in search of the right direction
Free University of Berlin
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broadway, african, american, harlem, renaissance
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Clare Stalder (Author), 2011, "It's getting dark on old Broadway". African American theatre of the Harlem Renaissance in search of the right direction, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/212985


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