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The History of Racial Exploitation in Theater

The beginnings of musical theatre were rife with exploiting minority races and cultures for the sake of entertainment. Variety shows and Vaudeville ensemble productions contained racially offensive and stereotypical characters, songs, and dialogue. Minority actors and technicians had to assimilate in order to be successful and to have a job to support their families during the economic trials of society in the 1920s and 1930s. Assimilation meant playing these stereotypical characters and encountering racism from producers, directors, and audience members. This time period in history directly influenced future films, plays, and our current climate of people of color in musical productions and color-conscious casting in twenty-first century America.

Variety shows called minstrel shows contained white actors that performed in blackface and used black stereotypes to create characters— like “Sambo” and “Zip Coon” — who were slaves, servants, or steamboat workers that were dumb, happy, and eager to please the white man. Black actors, singers, and dancers who were hired for minstrel shows and vaudeville productions were required to perform these offensive roles in blackface, as well. They often had to wear rude costumes and perform next to prejudiced set pieces.

Productions of minstrel shows began in the 1840s after Thomas Darmouth Rice made his “Jim Crow” character sketches popular with audiences in the 1830s. Full-length ensemble shows, created by Dan Emmett and E.P. Christy, soon followed with troupes called the Virginia Minstrels and Christy’s Minstrels. Dan Emmett composed the song “Dixie” which still conjures distasteful images even when played today. E.P. Christy created a three-part format which included mocking comedy sketches and repulsive satires of literature. After the Civil War, J.H Haverly took four minstrel troupes and merged them into a large production company called “Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels” that put on spectacular extravaganzas that paved the way for vaudeville shows that began in the 1880s. Haverly’s displays contained excessive set pieces and large song and dance numbers that completely changed the composition of the minstrel show.

Vaudeville ensemble shows were diverse acts that often contained minstrel show type acts: songs, comedy scenes, and dances. Bert A. Williams and George W. Walker were a popular comedic duo that had to perform in blackface even though they were black actors. Their characters they played were a dumb men always down on their luck and a con artist. Even though Williams was the first black man to be cast into an all-white Florence Ziegfield production, he was still subject to extreme racism. Despite his struggles, he held his head high and simply stated “I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man, but I have often found it inconvenient-in America”. There were no complete black theaters or troupes during this time period in American history. However, the incredible talent of Bert A. Williams paved the way for future black performers.

The treatment of black and other minority performers was even worse in the southern states. Owners, producers, and directors at those theaters subjected them to horrible working conditions, less pay, and required them to stay at different hotels from white actors in their touring companies.

Much of the same treatment was also encountered by American Indians, and Greek, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Irish, Hispanic, Arabian, and Asian immigrants. White actors and actresses, like Fanny Brice and Van and Schenck sang offensive, racially charged songs and used stereotypical facial expressions and makeup. The desire to assimilate and hide personal cultural heritage due to the need for success was also faced by actors of these ethnicities. Polish Jews Joseph Weber and Lew Fields were a comedy team that created an act where they played German immigrants Mike Weber and Meyer Fields in their very popular revues. They downplayed their birth heritage for fear of losing their careers in America. They also put on blackface and performed songs that they called “coon songs.” Billy Barty was a child actor in Vaudeville shows whose parents changed his birth name because they were trying to avoid discrimination against their Italian migrant ancestry.The subjugation of outnumbered cultures caused actors to play roles that they were uncomfortable with in order to make a living. White actors who were sympathizers to the plight of the horrible laws in place at this time in American history often wore blackface, shamefully, in order to support their families.

Bert A. Williams, and his flawless, comedic timing, was a pioneer for future performers of color. The dancing talent of the Nicholas Brothers was phenomenal and they had a very popular following of supportive audiences. Yet, for the next thirty years, it was often still difficult for actors of color to land roles — on stage and in movies — that were not servants or slaves. In 1939, Hattie McDaniel played the role of Mammy in the epic movie Gone With The Wind and received the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her incredible performance; but even then she wasn’t able to attend one of the movie’s premieres due to Jim Crow laws. Furthermore, on the Gone With The Wind movie set, McDaniel was subjected to restrooms for “blacks only” and transported to locations in separate vehicles from the white actors. The white actors and actresses in the film, like Vivien Leigh and Evelyn Keyes, found the conditions for black actors on set to be “appalling” and for the first time, an actual genuine camaraderie was created between black and white actors despite the segregated aspects that the producers and studio heads were demanding. David O. Selznick, the film’s producer, was pleasantly surprised by Hattie McDaniel’s performance in the final cut and signed her immediately to a long-term contract.

Activist Martin LutherKing, Jr. and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 caused a push toward more integrated theatre and film and allowed for the expression and production of more musicals that depicted real characters of color. More minority performers finally were being cast and Broadway musicals like The Wiz, Jelly’s Last Jam, Miss Saigon, Evita and In The Heights were groundbreaking. Lin-Manuel Miranda took color-conscious casting to an entirely new level with his creation of the musical Hamilton, in 2015. Miranda created a story based upon the life of Alexander Hamilton and America’s founding fathers and cast himself, a Puerto Rican-born immigrant, in the title role and cast all the other roles in the musical with non-white actors. Still, in 2017, there are many negative critics who do not agree with this casting flip. But it is completely understandable how America arrived at this revolutionary statement given the horrendous history of exploiting people of color on stages for roughly a hundred and eighty-five years (much longer if you count American Indian discrimination on stages).

The awards and accolades that Miranda and everyone involved with the first Broadway production of Hamilton have received prove that this musical was much needed in our current climate. Hamilton is two-fold history: the story of the Founding Fathers and a depiction of years of racial prejudice. The songs and dance styles in Hamilton represent a wide variety of fashionable music trends that appeal to many people of different cultures and backgrounds. The musical contains rap, hip-hop, pop, love ballads, and blues.

The art of theatre was created to bring entertainment to the masses. Even William Shakespeare who wrote large sections of his plays to appeal to the common man and all classes of people, understood the importance of allowing people to see themselves on stage. To this day, it is important for children of color to see themselves represented in the arts and Miranda, a consummate modern day Shakespeare, has single-handedly helped theatre educators reach kids in new ways with his creation of the hip-hop genre American musical.

As a country, we still have a long way to go to full acceptance of all cultures but it is uplifting to see that theatre arts are still continuously trying to bridge that gap. People of color do not have to assimilate to work on the stage like they used to. Color-blind casting has enabled the majority of people to be cast based on talent and physical ability to play the roles in musicals, and to allow musicals to be created for social change.

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