Blacking Up

In Black Manhattan, Johnson, a distinguished poet and NAACP field secretary, looks back on the early 1900s as a time of change and progress for blacks in New York, in spite of the riot, partly because black musical theater had entered a dynamic, innovative phase. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the traditional minstrel show, a loosely structured comic revue of performers arranged on stage in a semicircle, was replaced by musical farces with connected story lines, works written, produced, and performed by black companies. Johnson and his brother, the composer J. Rosamond Johnson, were a part of this new generation of black musicians, lyricists, and actors, a generation that also included Bert Williams and George Walker, who, in that first decade of the twentieth century, became the most famous black entertainers in the world. They had teamed up in California in 1893, came to New York in 1896 as “Two Real Coons,” and two years later were making a dance called the cakewalk all the rage. Williams and Walker, as they were then known, made American theatrical history by bringing the first black musical, In Dahomey, to Broadway in 1902. West 53rd Street was by then the center of black life in the city, but the move to Harlem was already underway.2

While Walker, the straight man, the dandy of the pair, sang, jigged, and shone, Williams, the clown, danced more slowly in oversized shoes, pulled sad faces, and seldom failed to bring down the house. He wore white gloves and he appeared in blackface. “He has had few equals in the art of pantomime,” Johnson says, and “in the singing of a plaintive Negro song he was beyond approach.” Historians of black theater say that he perfected and then subverted through his sensitive and refined style the minstrel tradition in which he performed. But the enormous popularity of Williams and Walker was as short-lived as that of West 53rd Street or the fashion for ragtime. Bert Williams died in 1922, but his partnership with George Walker had ended in 1909, when Walker’s broken health forced him to retire. Williams tried to keep their theatrical company going on his own—the Williams and Walker company had been the largest and strongest black group of its day—but soon gave up. In 1910 he joined the Ziegfeld Follies, a move Johnson calls Williams’s “defection” to the white stage. Other figures important to the new black theater also fell ill or died around this time, Johnson explains, and what had seemed so alive went quiet.

By the time the black musical theater revived in the 1920s, during the Negro Awakening, there was farce without blackface, even though minstrelsy would continue to be a convention of mainstream popular entertainment and dramatic art for some time—those lascivious black Reconstruction politicians in D.W. Griffith’s 1919 Birth of a Nation are played by white actors in blackface; the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, features Al Jolson in blackface; Ethel Barrymore appeared…

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