"It's getting dark on old Broadway"
African American theatre of the Harlem Renaissance in
search of the right direction
1 Blackface minstrelsy: the ancestors of Black theatre
2 Black musical theatre: From Broadway to Harlem nightclubs and back
2.1 The special role of musical theatre
2.2 Vaudeville and the first black musical comedies (1880-1910)
2.3 The Term of Exile (1910-1920)
2.4 Shuffle Along - Back to Broadway (1921-1929)
3 Black Drama: In search of the right direction
3.1 Protest drama or folk theatre?
3.2 Folk drama and the Little Theatre movement
3.3 Black drama on Broadway
4 Dilemmas of the Black performer: dangers and chances of going mainstream
4.1 The double audience
4.2 Imitating white material or creating new black material
4.3 White writers and producers staging "black" drama
4.4 Segregation and discrimination
It's getting very dark on Old Broadway
You see the change in ev'ry cabaret
Just like an eclipse of the moon,
Ev'ry café now has the dancing coon.
Pretty choc'late ladies
Shake and shimmie ev'rywhere
Real dark-town entertainers hold the stage,
You must black up to be the latest rage
("It's getting dark on old Broadway" from
the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922, qtd. in Woll 76)
When Gilda Gray performed "It's Getting Dark on Old Broadway" in the opening show of the song-and-dance revue Ziegfeld Follies on 5 June 1922 she eternalized Broadway's latest trend (Woll 76). Black entertainment proliferated in the Theatre District along Broadway in the 1920s and it seemed that black shows had made it into the limelight of success. There was, however, a different 'dark' side to the developments of the black performance scene. To many leading intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, the new darkness on Broadway looked rather bleak. Important figures like W. E. B. Du Bois who campaigned for a new racial identity through cultural creation (cf. Du Bois “Criteria of Negro Art”) feared that the new phenomenon of black productions reaching out for mainstream success would betray their cause. In his speech at the NAACP's annual conference, he famously claimed that "all Art is propaganda and ever must be" (Du Bois par. 29). Catering to the white public's demands (pars. 33, 35), as the successful Black Broadway musicals did, would mean failing the cause, according to Du Bois. While some scholars argue that theatre and performance in the New Negro era played "a pivotal role in the evolution of Black Nationalism" (Krasner 1), those are opposed by a number of authors who look upon the Harlem Renaissance as a failure (cf. Baker xiii, Neal 39, Krasner 95f.). In the following paper, I will look into the question of whether the performers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance really failed to contribute to a change of white America's attitude toward the African American race (Krasner 14). One point at issue will be whether the increasing success and commercialisation of Black theatre counteracted the objectives of racial renewal or if on the contrary, they were a means to an end. In order to analyse what circumstances playwrights and performers had to overcome, I will outline the development of Black theatre since the 19th century. As Harlem Renaissance intellectuals aimed to put the biased images behind them, it is necessary to investigate thoroughly what these images were and where they came from. Hence, I will start my analysis by looking at minstrelsy and its influences on early Black musical theatre. Black dramatists and drama theorists were still struggling to reach a consensus on the issue of mainstream whereas musical theatre eventually cut its own path to commercial success on Broadway. This controversy will be summarised in chapter 3. Subsequently, I will research the seemingly unresolvable dilemmas Black artists had to deal with in order to eventually be able to evaluate the...
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