African American Figures and Themes

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Black performers in both Porgy and Bess and Show Boat emphasize the place of African Americans in the history of the musical. Harrigan used black actors in his Mulligan Guard sketches, and Bert Williams was one of Ziegfeld’s headliners. Black revues were a part of the Broadway experience throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. Yet even the kindest interpretation of the facts sees the presence of institutional racism. The all-black label, the label of separateness, draws attention away from serious works such as Porgy and Bess and Vernon Duke’s Cabin in the Sky (pr. 1940), and despite the limited integration of a show such as Show Boat, black actresses never played Julie, the mulatto accused of miscegenation. A notable exception was the revue As Thousands Cheer (pr. 1933) with songs by Berlin and sketches by Moss Hart. Black actress and singer Ethel Waters spoofed Josephine Baker and Coward and sang “Supper Time,” a song about racism. Also part of black musical history are black versions of white sources such as The Hot Mikado (1939), a swing version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado: Or, The Town of Titipu (pr. 1885); Carmen Jones (pr. 1943); and all-black casts in white shows such as the 1967 Pearl Bailey version of Hello, Dolly! (pr. 1964) or Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s lovely House of Flowers (pr. 1954). In his first effort following the death of...

(The entire section is 460 words.)