Breaking the Mold: Subversive rhetoric in In Dahomey

For this blog assignment, I found a performance of the song, “On Emancipation Day,” from the musical In Dahomey, with music by Will Marion Cook and lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In Dahomey is a significant piece of art for several reasons.

First and foremost, it was the first full-length musical written by african americans, with an african american cast to appear in a major Broadway Theater. The musical was very successful; it ran for 53 performances, including two United States tours as well as a tour to the United Kingdom.

However, there is a deeper significance to this work than just pure success. It also pushed against social norms of the time period. In the chapter “Early Black Americans on Broadway,” by Monica White Ndounou from the Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, she argues that the musical contained some subversive ideas regarding black freedom of representation and production in theatre.

“The song “Broadway in the Jungle” incorporates African iconography in its vision of the Great White Way, but in a more subversive way than Williams and Walker may have been credited with in their lifetime. They speak not of bringing Dahomians to Broadway but instead building a Broadway for colored people in Dahomey. They sing: “If we went to Dahomey. Suppose the king would say, we want a Broadway built for us, we want it right away.” They call for a space in which blacks control production and performance. Stereotypical references throughout, however, detract from the revolutionary idea (for instance, using a crocodile, or a “Crock-o-Dial” on the face of the Broadway clock, getting gorillas to use as the police, and a hippopotamus for Justice of the Peace, etc). They fail to improve African representation, but succeed in the use of dialect and other devices,” (Ndounou 67-68).

Even though they challenged the status quo in this way, it fell into line with others. The play was not exempt from the influence of minstrelsy, which permeated all black theatre of the time. Ndounou also comments on this:

“In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy draws character names from minstrelsy, while combining low comedy, ethnic jokes, and references to current social and political events within its three-act structure. Whereas white comics were able to access a range of ethnic stereotypes (i.e. Irish, Hebrew, and Dutch), black performers could only play variations of the “Darky” and the Chinese. In Dahomey features these constrained representations of ethnic identity, while building on models established in previous shows,” (Ndounou 66).

To tie this back into class, even though In Dahomey followed the familiar narrative of Black Theater being a successful, though problematic form of entrepreneurship, it should also be recognized for how it pushed against the expectations of the time.

Works Cited:
Bordman, Gerald, Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 190.

Ndounou, Monica White. “Early black Americans on Broadway.” The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, edited by Harvey Young, Cambridge UP, pp. 59-70.

Spencer, Len, baritone. On Emancipation Day, by Will Marion Cook. Library of Congress: National Jukebox, 25 October, 1902.

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