The Essence of Black Musical Theater

Discuss the historical and socio-cultural significance of the productions A Trip to Coontown and Shuffle Along. To what extent was the music of these shows of African American origin? Identify at least two African American stars who emerged from these productions and discuss the full extent of their influence on African American musical theater.

A Trip to Coontown was produced in 1897 by “Bob” Cole and Billy Johnson. The production contained fast tempo songs, comedy, and African American styled songs and ragtime music. It was the first full-length black musical production that was created and owned by African Americans. In addition, the production presented African American entertainers in well-manner due to minimal stereotypes and condescending behaviors. The production also challenged racism by having Cole dressed in white-face makeup as a homeless person and returning in one scene with chicken. During this time period, the craving of chicken was a stereotype associated with African Americans, as well as laziness and drunkenness. However, Cole challenged this stereotype through his portrayal of the character.


Conversely, Shuffle Along was produced in 1921 on Broadway by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The production was the longest running play on Broadway and contained an all-black cast. In addition, the production was the first to include syncopated jazz music and professional female dancers. It also contributed to the desegregation of theaters in the 1920s and was the first black musical play to appear in white theaters throughout the United States.

Some African American stars that emerged from these productions include Caterina Yarboro and Paul Robeson. Caterina Jarboro was a notable opera singer who became the first black opera singer to perform on stage under a major white-American company. In addition, actor, singer, political activist, Paul Robeson, was considered to be the first African American to play major roles in white American theater. In addition, he performed benefits internationally to fight for peace and justice. He was greatly admired and believed that celebrities had the obligation to fight against injustice.

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