Where are the black musical theatre writers?
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
We read In Dahomey, a musical comedy from 1902, with music by Will Marion Cook, book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and others, it featured an all black cast and proceeded the work of the so-called and considered greats of musical theatre like Rodgers and Hammerstein. In Dahomey uses certain tropes of minstrel shows, as well as popular songs and black American cultural references to tell a sweeping story that travels from Boston, to Gatorville, Florida, to the Kingdom of Dahomey (the land that was once Dahomey is now in Benin), and back to Florida. We were asked in class if we'd ever seen a musical. Everyone had. Then if we'd ever seen a musical written by and starring black Americans. There was initial silence in the room. I was sick and had been kindly Skyped into class, so I had a hard time hearing which shows people did end up mentioning. My mind automatically jumped to the Caribbean, where I've been exposed to a number of black written and performed musicals, including one of my favourites, The Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club by Tony Hall (check out pictures HERE on Facebook), which Tony and I have talked numerous times about re-mounting. Then there is The Joker of Seville by Derek Walcott, but it's music was composed by Galt MacDermot, a white American/Canadian (who also composed Hair). Beyond those mentioned, Calypso tents, in which Calypsonians perform each Carnival, are musical theatre spaces in themselves. My mind also went to the new musical comedy that I was involved in creating in 2015, which was called Buss de Mark, written by Zeleca Julien and Alexander Johnson, that I directed for the PRIDE Arts Festival in 2016. Next I thought of the last musical that made me cry, a 2016 production of Obeah Opera, music and libretto by Nicole Brooks, which I was lucky enough to see in Toronto, Canada when I worked there. Nicole was my direct supervisor while I was working at the CaribbeanTales International Film Festival, and so I was privy to snippets about the making of the show - for example, the fact that Nicole wrote the entire piece, all two and a half a capella hours of earth-shattering music, in her mind, and taught it all to her all-female cast aurally.
From American musical theatre of course The Wiz comes up, with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, even though the book was written by white writer William F. Brown. Other shows that were brought up were Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, conceived and directed by George C. Wolfe, with music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay; lyrics by Reg E. Gaines, George C. Wolfe and Ann Duquesnay; and a book by Reg E. Gaines. But my mind drew a blank after that. I looked it up. A few others came forward: Holler If Ya Hear Me, which apparently featured music by Tupac, but was a huge flop on Broadway, and of course Shuffle Along, with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. But so many of the musicals that I know, like Porgy and Bess and Once on this Island, were written and lead by white directors, playwrights and lyricists. This is not shocking, but it also is shocking. Shocking because of the rich body of music by African Americans and the reality that despite this, the musical theatre, the space that first drew me into the theatre, has not provided space for black theatre artists to thrive. Musical theatre is full of such joy and such potential - but it is white owned and operated, even though people of the African diaspora have a rich musical performance history, songs that tell stories, and a million stories to tell.