The history of black people in theatre/musical theatre dates back to early 19th century minstrel shows. The roots of black theatre and the history is very trying and oppressively sad. In the beginning of theatre itself, white people wrote plays, acted as black people, and performed it in front of white audiences. This past is horrific, but should always be noted within the theatre community.
After the American Civil War, black people began to perform in their own minstrel shows. When the 20th century came around, black musicians arose along with black producers, black actors, and black writers.
Black theatre flourished during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Experimental groups and black theatre companies emerged in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. In the late 1930s, black community theatres began to appear, revealing talents such as those of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. By 1940 black theatre was firmly grounded in the American Negro Theater and the Negro Playwrights’ Company.
After World War II black theatre grew more progressive, more radical, and more militant, reflecting the ideals of black revolution and seeking to establish a mythology and symbolism apart from white culture Councils were organized to abolish the use of racial stereotypes in theatre and to integrate black playwrights into the mainstream of American theatre
With all the history of Black Americans in theatre, how has Hamilton: An American Musical, shaped black musical arts along with black people in the arts?
But First, What is Hamilton? Hamilton: An American Musical is a sung-and-rapped through musical about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton transformed theatre in so many ways. The musical theater sensation of the decade scooped a record sixteen Tony nominations. Hamilton was such a hit in today’s modern world because fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written. Along with the success of it just being an amazing and creative production, the cast are all black and brown people. Hamilton features and highlights its all black and brown actors, but its story never depicts a slave. That said, it’s also true that minstrelsy is crucial to Miranda’s project: he takes the long American minstrelsy tradition of white people in blackface on stage and reverses it. He appropriates its music, rewrites its lyrics, turns its politics on its head, and fashions the whole thing into a show that is simultaneously an excoriation of current American political realities, an encomium to American revolutionary energies, and a celebration of American musical theatre history.
Someone who helped depict the musical phenomenon was the very honorable, Daveed Diggs. Daveed Diggs was born January 24th, 1982 in Oakland California. The west coast artist graduated from Berkeley High School and Brown University. Musician Daveed Diggs is a black artist, who’s work and life as a black person in theatre, should be celebrated. His story and rise to Hamilton, is worthy of appreciation.
Diggs started his career with a couple of childhood friends. They created an experimental hip hop group entitled Clipping from California. The group consists of rapper Daveed Diggs and producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. The group began in 2009 as a remix project, with Hutson and Snipes taking a capellas of mainstream rap artists and making power electronics and noise remixes of them to amuse themselves. Daveed Diggs joined in 2010 and began to write his own raps over their compositions.Though their expectations were low, and despite minimal promotion, their album was well-received, and five months later, they signed to Sub Pop. The group does not see their abrasive sound as a rejection of mainstream hip hop or reaction against it, but as part of a hip hop tradition including the likes of Dr. Dre and Public Enemy producers The Bomb Squad, who experimented with production and also used harsh, musique concrète-esque techniques in their music.
Diggs musical journey continued. As he progressed in his music group, he also took opportunities in theatre. Around 2012, Lin-Manuel Miranda invited Daveed Diggs to read an early version of Hamilton. Diggs was impressed by Miranda’s demos and passion for the project, and saw that the concept was a perceptive use of the rap-musical medium. He played the roles of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette off-Broadway in 2015, continuing with the roles when the show was moved to Broadway later in the year. For his performance, Diggs won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, as well as a 2016 Grammy Award for the cast album. Diggs played his final performance in the show on July 15, 2016. Since leaving Hamilton in 2016, he has had a recurring role on the television series Black-ish, and co-starred in the film Wonder. Diggs also wrote, produced and starred in the 2018 film Blindspotting, which earned him a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead.
Daveed Diggs has set a president for modern day artists. He recognizes that representation is important, especially on Broadway. He’s used his platform to be an informer, advocate, and activists. HIs musical talents have taken him so far and it is only the beginning. He is someone that young black boys can look up to. He is someone that the black community can depend on to speak truth into the systems that oppress us. Surround by the white world (Theatre/Broadway), Diggs has proven to rise about.
As African Americans, we have many ways of defining Blackness. Utilizing the stage, is one form of sharing the Black experience. As African Americans in theatre (actors, writers, and producers) what we put on stage, is our Blackness. Daveed Diggs, along with those apart of the Hamilton experience choose to strategically portray black lives in the way they feel their experience. To be black in Musical Theatre is so be surrounded by those that are different, and to be surrounded by our oppressors. To be black in Musical Theatre is a choice to sing louder and speak bolder than anyone on the stage. Daveed Diggs embodies all that it means to be a black musician on Broadway.
Soloski, Alexis. “Sixteen ways Hamilton transformed theater – and the world.” The Guardian, may. 3, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/may/03/hamilton-tony-awards-broadway-lin-manuel-miranda
Monteiro, Lyra D. “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.” Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 1, 2016. https://www.academia.edu/21739155/Race-Conscious_Casting_and_the_Erasure_of_the_Black_Past_in_Lin-Manuel_Mirandas_Hamilton
Playwright: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Composer: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lyricist: Lin-Manuel Miranda Producer: Jeffrey Seller, Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Black Theatre.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 23 Feb. 2017, www.britannica.com/art/black-theatre https://www.britannica.com/art/black-theatre
“‘An Equation for Black People Onstage:” An Excerpt.” Marin Theatre Company, www.marintheatre.org/productions/topdog-underdog/tu-equation-essay.
Churchwell, Sarah. “Why Hamilton Is Making Musical History.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Nov. 2016, www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/nov/05/why-hamilton-is-making-musical-history.
Chillmagazine. “Why Everyone Is Digging Daveed Diggs.” CHILL, 12 July 2018, www.chill.us/entertainment/2018/7/12/why-everyone-digging-daveed-d
Robinson, Lisa, and Lisa Robinson. “How Hamilton Changed Daveed Diggs’s Life (and Preferred Mode of Transportation).” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 26 May 2017, www.vanityfair.com/culture/2016/11/hamilton-daveed-diggs-music.