What Africa Gave to Broadway

Africa gave theatre... complex music interesting plots everything.

European based musicals have thrived on the streets of Broadway because of Africa’s influence in their storylines, musical arrangements, and performance qualities.

Broadway Musicals: “The Lion King”, “In Dahomey”, and “Sarafina!”

Black Theatre's Origin

   Black musical theatre is followed back circuses, dime museums, and minstrel shows. Within these shows-played by white actors and actresses- stereotypes using instruments, like the bones, and vocal imitation created an ‘inferior’ stereotype of black musicianship. While this stigma flourished in the 1800s, “In Dahomey” broke the mold by being “the first full-length musical written and played by blacks. “In Dahomey” was to be performed on Broadway in 1903. This musical became a pivotal point within theatre history because of its black casting, storyline to colonize present-day Benin, West Africa, and musical influence for classic vaudevillian elements. These elements shifted theatre in the early twentieth century.

Evolution of Theatre

Though the early 1900s Theatre transformed the ‘inferior’ stereotype of black artists, the 1980s gave eyesight to the problems every demographic faces. The problems were transformed to musicals that made light out of pain while continuing to spread awareness through major platforms like Broadway. “Sarafina!”, a musical debuted on Broadway January 28, 1988, depicted the Soweto Riots. The riots were a result of the Soweto uprising: demonstrations and protests led by black schools in South Africa. Not only does this musical literally tell a story rooting in Africa, but it patterns the early tradition to teach African music by word of mouth to continue a family’s lineage. 

Music in Theatre

Through music, “In Dahomey” deconstructed stereotypes, “Sarafina!” communicated important stories, and “The Lion King” combatted the European aesthetic of vocally straight music. Drawing back to “Arwhoolie” as a Cornfield Holler, the European definition of the Western Aesthetic was music seen to be vocal lines screamed rather than sung adding a overarching “peculiar” tone to the piece of music. “The Lion King’s” ‘Circle of Life’ begins in a beautifully with Rafiki singing “Nants ingonuama bagithi baba”. This entrance phrase would have been contributed to the idea of “strange” and “peculiar” when in reality is the Zulu language. 

Looking Towards The Future

Carousel, Joushua Henry Pictured
Wicked, Brittany Johnson Pictured
Although musicals like “Anything Goes”, and “Chicago” create an exciting atmosphere within the theatre, “In Dahomey”, “Sarafina!”, and “The Lion King” made way for these musicals and other all blacks casted musical to thrive. 
Phantom of the Opera, Norm Lewis Pictured
The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo Pictured

The African community influenced the creation of theatre and will continue to shift the European dynamic through all black casted, directed, and produced musicals that will one day feature… me.

What's your password?

Login to your account

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.