Playbill

Musical Theatre

The picture depicted of African-Americans on Broadway before the late 1890s was a “outside perspective of black life created by European-American performers.” Stereotyped” coon songs “were popular, and blackface was used very often. In 1898, artists Will Marion Cook and Bob Cole brought black-written musical comedy to Broadway. Cole’s A Trip to Coontown was the first full-length musical comedy written, directed, and exclusively performed by blacks in New York. It is important to note the pivotal moments of African Americans in the history of theatre. A prime example would be. Bert Williams in The Ziegfeld Follies in 1910. Bert Williams had his first success in a comic act that pitted George Walker’s fast-talking city slicker against Williams ‘ slow-moving country bumpkin in 1895. Williams, tall and light-skinned, always put on the traditional black-face makeup that all minstrels wore which he thought helped him get into character. But the wit and dignity that he brought to his performances made both blacks and whites appreciate his character as a funny everyman rather than a crude caricature. By 1903, in Dahomey, the first all-black musical comedy to play in a major Broadway theater, Williams and Walker starred. But after Walker had fallen ill from syphilis in 1909 (he would die two years later) Florenz Ziegfeld invited Williams to be a headliner in his 1910 Follies, making him the first black to play alongside whites on Broadway. Even though he formed close ties with co-stars like W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, when other Follies performers traveled across the segregated South, Williams was still forced to stay home. 

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