Musical Theater

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Black Musical Theater: What is it?

Black Musical Theater is dramatic movement composed of plays written by, for, and about African Americans. Black Musical Theater originated from the minstrel shows of the early 19th century.  Minstrel shows were essentially how whites viewed black life to be and therefore became a large source of entertainment to the all-white audiences. Minstrel shows originally were written and performed by whites in blackface, although many blacks ended up getting into the business themselves following the American Civil War to make a living and hopefully be discovered as musicians and actors across the country. When Black Musical Theater evolved from minstrel shows, it was most prominent in New York during the first half of the twentieth century.

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The First Black Productions

"In Dahomey," the first full length musical to be written, produced, and performed by blacks at a Broadway Theater, opened in 1903 at the New York Theater.
James Brown's "The Drama of King Shotaway" is the first known play by a Black American. It was written around 1823.
"The Escape" or "A Leap for Freedom" from 1858 is one of the earliest existing plays written by a black playwright.
"Rachel," by Angelina W. Grimké, was the first real success in Black theatre.
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Cole Thought v. Cook Thought

In 1898, Will Marion Cook and Bob Cole were the first to bring black-written musical comedy to Broadway. Although they were a duo, Cook and Cole had vastly different ideas on what Black Musical Theater should look like. Cole believed that blacks should try to compete with white Americans by proving that they could act in similar productions. Cook, however, believed that instead of trying to mimic white Americans, blacks should instead create their own style of performance.

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Traditional Black Musical Theater

Modern Black Musical Theater

Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk

A Trip to Coontown

The Belle of Bridgeport

The Shoo-Fly Regiment 

A Lucky Coon

Shuffle Along 

The Swing Mikado 

Carmen Jones  

The Wiz

Dreamgirls

Ain’t Mishbehavin’

It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues

Passing Strange

Porgy and Bess

Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk

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Gallery of African American Musical Theater Productions