Broadway to Blackface: Reflecting on A Complicit History

1619-06-01 00:00:00

Transatlantic Slave Trade

Slaves are brought to Jamestown, VA.

1822-06-01 00:00:00

Blackface Minstrelsy Begins

An English stage star, Charles Matthews, came to the US and became interested in the way that Black Americans talked and moved. He began to create skits and songs that drew from the way he viewed the Black people he encountered and thus began the trend of impersonating Black people onstage in the early 19th Century. The practice of studying Black culture and traditions to later duplicate or imitate them for ones own gain still continues today in the form of cultural appropriation.

1828-12-29 14:55:03

Thomas Dartmouth Rice developed “ Jim Crow” the first popularly known blackface character

Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white New York comedian known as the Father of Minstrelsy, first introduced the minstrel character Jim Crow in 1832. Because of Thomas’ popularity, the phrase Jim Crow became synonymous with the Black identity of the time and throughout the era of desegregation. The character lent its name to the laws instituted racial segregation directed against Black people in the south at the end of the 19th century. The character originated in a show that toured in the early 1820’s until the late 1870’s. His performance gave rise to the racist artform of minstrelsy whose effects are still felt in our society today through highly racist stereotyping in the theater industry, such as asking actors to “take you to church” and “be more/less urban.”

1843-06-01 00:00:00

Christy Minstrels as the Precursor to Vaudeville

In 1843, Edwin Pearce Christy, a well-known white ballad singer, formed a blackface group in Buffalo, New York called Christy’s Minstrels. They originated the typical minstrel show format, and played on Broadway for almost 10 years.

1848-01-01 21:59:35

Blackface Minstrelsy Becomes the National Artform

Minstrel shows began to gain traction as the most popular form of public amusement in the United States during the 1840’s. By 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national artform. This form was to the united states what opera was to Italy. According to the Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia “... the minstrel show became the most popular and distinctive product of the American entertainment scene and reached a new peak of popularity after the Civil War. Much to our embarrassment now, when the English were introduced to Rice's music and performances by the Virginia Minstrels in 1843, they viewed the music and performances as characteristic American music.” These shows were a way to communicate and parody everything from opera to imagined slave dramas for a working class audience. Eventually minstrelsy evolved into vaudeville which in turn evolved into the musical theater style of the Broadway we know today.

1851-06-01 00:00:00

Stephen Foster writes Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)

"Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River") is a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851, commissioned by E. P. Christy for use by his blackface minstrel troupe Christy's Minstrels. As such, Christy’s Minstrels had the exclusive rights to the song, and had phenomenal commercial success. The lyrics are written from the first-person perspective of an enslaved African character speaking in a white version of a Black dialect, and arguably romanticize slavery. This song launched the career of Stephen Foster as a minstrel songwriting icon with many racist songs and lyrics to his name and credit. “Old Folks at Home” has been the official state song of Florida since 1935, although in 2008 the original lyrics were revised.

1861-04-12 22:21:48

The Civil War Begins

From the United States Senate Website: "At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. Less than 34 hours later, Union forces surrendered. Traditionally, this event has been used to mark the beginning of the Civil War."

1863-01-01 00:00:00

The Emancipation proclamation

The Emancipation proclamation became official On January 1st,1863 legally freeing slaves in the states that had seceded from the union, leaving the slaveholding states who were still in the Union’s borders largely untouched. Though the prison industrial complex of today's America serves as a legalized version of slavery, this proclaimation handed down by Abraham Lincoln freed most of the slaves in the seceded south, incrementally, as news of emancipation reached plantations. Eventually, formerly enslaved Black people were promised 40 acres and a mule by the US government as reparations. This promise remains undelivered.

1865-01-19 00:05:51

Tony Pastor opens Tony Pastor's Opera House- the beginning of the vaudeville

Everything I know I learned in vaudeville.” -James Cagney Tony Pastor was a songwriter and variety performer known as the “Dean of Vaudeville” He grew to fame as a minstrel performer, often appearing in heinously racist blackface scenes and shows, and later as a popular song writer. He recognized as he delved into variety performance, that his shows were popular with a raucous audience of men but that his profits could double if he also appealed to the women of the time. So he cleaned up the bawdy nature of variety performances and returned to his roots, presenting evenings of “clean fun” that was deemed appropriate for families. He alternated programming between operettas and “family oriented” variety shows, including blackface minstrel shows, creating what was later known as vaudeville.

1865-06-19 00:00:00

News of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reaches Texas

News of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reaches Texas on June 19th 1865. Several stories including murdered messengers, greedy slaveholders and a government who wanted the slaveholders to benefit from one last cotton crop have been offered in explanation as to why the news of freedom took a full two years to reach Texas. The date of this proclamation of freedom finally reaching its last destination is celebrated today as Juneteenth. Recently, there has been a motion to make Juneteenth a national holiday as Black history and particularly the history of enslaving Black people is a part of American history, and the abolition of this atrocity and the freedom of these Americans should be given room and priority for national celebration.

1876-11-10 08:06:11

Tony Pastor Popularizes the Term "Vaudeville" in Place of "Variety"

Tony Pastor "The Dean of Vaudeville" began to use the term to promote his variety shows. He blended English music hall, Yiddish theater performance and blackface minstrelsy, a relic of the American confederacy. According to Britannica, "The term vaudeville, adopted in the United States from the Parisian boulevard theatre, is probably a corruption of vaux-de-vire, satirical songs in couplets, sung to popular airs in the 15th century in the Val-de-Vire (Vau-de-Vire), Normandy, France. It passed into theatrical usage in the early 18th century to describe a device employed by professional actors to circumvent the dramatic monopoly held by the Comédie-Française. Forbidden to perform legitimate drama, they presented their plays in pantomime, interpreting the action with lyrics and choruses set to popular tunes. It eventually developed into a form of light musical drama, with spoken dialogue interspersed with songs, that was popular throughout Europe." At first these American variety shows were presented in Beer halls and brothels and featured bawdy entertainment geared toward a strictly male audience. Hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theaters, eliminated bawdy material from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor's experiment proved successful, and other managers soon followed suit. And thus, Vaudeville began.

1880-06-01 00:00:00

The Medicine Show Rises in Popularity Paving the Way for Touring Vaudeville Acts

By 1900 the patent medicine industry was an $80 million dollar business. Medicine shows often touted various mixtures of alcohol, opium and cocaine lauded as "cures" and "potions" by traveling salesmen. The Medicine Show combined various forms of popular entertainment with sales pitches from these traveling "doctors" who sold these cures and devices. These shows generally played outdoors on a platform or in a tent and remained in any given location between one night and six weeks depending on the town. These shows were often the first form of entertainment in rural communities that might not have any performances like this for years at a time. These shows often featured blackface minstrels and comedians and helped to widely spread the racist tropes of this heinous artform. Medicine shows later formed the foundation for the touring acts of Vaudeville, as vaudeville rose to popularity on the New York stage. Such characters as Ali Hakim of Oklahoma are based on this early form of traveling entertainment. Because these traveling shows often featured blackface entertainment they helped shape the dominant cultural imagination with the images of these racist tropes inextricably interwoven into the fabric of American cultural presentation. Such shows as the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show helped to consecrate the Medicine show into a truly American cultural signature.

1896-01-09 17:20:11

Thomas Edison produces the silent short film “Watermelon Eating Contest”

Edison’s company invented the kinetoscope, an early motion picture device you would look into through a peephole viewer. Edison recorded images of the first African Americans on the silver screen. They are depicted in this short film having a watermelon eating contest. Though watermelon was generally planted by enslaved Black people as a tool for hydration and survival in the harsh sun and back breaking work of the plantations they were enslaved to, the trope of Black people's affinity for watermelon can be traced back to the release of this film. This was the first widely circulated moving image of real Black people that had been seen by American and international audiences en masse. Because of the national attitudes toward Black people, largely shaped by stage portrayals of skewed Black experiences, this video served as evidence corroborating the stereotypes put forth in these staged portrayals.

1896-05-18 00:00:00

Plessy v. Ferguson- Separate But Equal

In the time of reconstruction Black voices in American culture took on more leadership and definitive roles than ever before. Black people held positions as government officials and were legally given equal protection under the 14th amendment. Many White Americans, especially those in the South still held hateful attitudes in part developed and propagandized by the stereotypes of the live entertainment of the time. The "equality" granted by the law still lent itself to a larger disenfranchisement of Black people trying to forge a voice in the dominant American culture. To marginalize and intentionally separate Black people, Jim Crow laws (named for the pervasively popular minstrel caricature) were enacted in southern states. Though not legally present in the North, Black people still experienced prejudice and discrimination. Some states even passed laws to limit voting rights and keep Black voices out of the national conversation. In 1869, The U.S Supreme court declared that facilities for Black and White people could be separate but equal in a landmark decision that shaped the segregated culture of the United states through The Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60's

1903-03-28 16:56:23

Uncle Tom's Cabin Released on Film Featuring White Performers in Blackface

Because stage performance was one of the main forms of entertainment before the advent of film, what was popularized in the theater helped to shape the dominant culture. As minstrelsy came to great acclaim, it helped shape cultural conversations in a newly forming nation. When silent movies began production often they made films of the popular stage narratives of the time. The most popular of these stage narratives were adaptations Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom' s Cabin. Her flawed portrayal of the black experience created new opportunities for staged blackface caricatures and when these stage portrayals were translated to film and popularized in mainstream culture, those pervasive stereotypes served as the bedrock and foundation of early American film. One of the earliest of these adaptations was Edwin S Porter's film version of Uncle Tom's Cabin shot at Thomas A. Edison's company studio in New York.

1911-06-01 00:00:00

The Shubert Brothers open the enormous Winter Garden Theatre

Winter Garden opens with the show "La Belle Paree," the show that launched the career of blackface entertainer Al Jolson and featured Jerome Kern's song "Paris Is a Paradise for Coons."

1916-05-24 00:00:00

Noble Johnson Founds Lincoln Motion Picture Company- The first Black Owned Film Production Company

Nobel Johnson began the first film production company ever organized by black filmmakers. His company in turn released the first film featuring Black performer in dramatic roles outside of the tropes and stereotypes created by minstrelsy and perpetuated by vaudeville and Broadway and eventually the film industry of Hollywood

1918-06-01 00:00:00

Micheaux Film Corporation was Founded

Originally founded as the Micheaux Film and Book Corporation by Oscar Micheaux in 1918 Chicago. The company began with Micheaux writing novels about his life and experiences as a homesteader. His first book "The Homesteader" proved incredibly popular and after Nobel Johnson, president of Lincoln motion picture company, approached Micheaux about purchasing the film rights but denied Micheaux his request to direct his own work so that he may be in control of the portrayal of the Black experience, Micheaux set out to create his own production company and produced over 35 films covering a wide variety of subjects, including the racism of Jim Crow laws.

1919-07-18 00:00:00

Actors Equity is Formed

Striking actors, stagehands, and musicians bring Broadway to a halt for a month, from August to September. The formation of this union under the Separate but Equal racial climate of the time calls into question whether Actors Equity's mission "to foster the art of live theatre as an essential component of society and advances the careers of its members by negotiating wages, improving working conditions and providing a wide range of benefits, including health and pension plans" can properly advocate for the black performer without the Black performers legal personhood at the bedrock of its foundation. Much in the way feminism without intersectionality serves only to benefit the white woman, Equity's lack of integral intersectionality could be at the heart of some of its fundamental problems.

1923-11-17 00:00:00

Roland Hayes became the first African American Soloist to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Roland Hayes, a composer and lyrical tenor, became the first African American Soloist to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

1933-03-18 00:00:00

Mickey's Mellerdrammer Released- Walt Disney’s Animated Tom Show

In 1933 United Artists released Mickey’s Mellerdrammer a version of a blackface minstrel Tom show where Mickey and the gang are seen applying and performing in blacface to present a low budget rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This portrayal of a Tom show is one in a long and historical line of offenses in Disney's distant and recent past. The company is currently under fire for casting white performers in roles where BIPOC performers should be cast, often leaving room for these performers to alter their skintone to match that of the character they are portraying.

1940-09-01 21:05:52

Tuskegee Airmen Deployed to North Africa

In April 1942, the Tuskegee-trained 99th Pursuit Squadron deployed to North Africa, which the Allies had occupied. "In North Africa and then Sicily, they flew missions in second-hand P-40 planes, which were slower and more difficult to maneuver than their German counterparts. " -History.com

1941-06-25 22:33:59

Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802 Allowing All Americans to Work in Government Jobs and National Defense

"After thousands of black people threatened to march on Washington to demand equal employment rights, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941. It opened national defense jobs and other government jobs to all Americans regardless of race, creed, color or national origin. Black men and women served heroically in World War II, despite suffering segregation and discrimination during their deployment."- History.com

1943-03-31 00:00:00

Oklahoma!" the first Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway collaboration, opens to rave reviews.

Oklahoma presents an enchanting theater experience to a wartime audience and later runs for 2,212 performances and a film adaptation. The show opened with an all white presenting cast despite major pushes for racial equality during the time of its release.

1958-06-19 03:41:38

The Sound of Music" and "Fiorello!" win the first and only tie vote as Best Musical at the Tonys.

The golden age of Broadway flourishes producing 2 works of classic renowned that tie for the Best Musical at the 14th Tony awards against the backdrop of racial unrest in America. Broadway continues to crank out lighthearted musicals and largely ignore the civil rights movement of the time.

1967-07-01 00:00:00

Formation of Poetry Group The Watts Profits

"The Watts Prophets® is a group of poets and musicians from Watts, Los Angeles, California. Like their contemporaries, The Last Poets, the group combined elements of jazz music and spoken word performance, making the trio one that is often seen as a forerunner of contemporary hip hop music."

1978-06-01 00:00:00

“Old Folks at Home” Sung to dedicate the new Florida State Capitol Building

At the 1978 dedication of the Capitol Complex, the song Old Folks at Home, which was at the time Florida’s state Anthem was performed. The incredibly racist lyrics were amended for this performance.

2015-02-17 00:00:00

“Hamilton” opens at the Public Theater in NYC

The musical Hamilton, written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, follows the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the role he played in shaping America. The show is known for its BIPOC-majority casting, and a score that relies heavily on the work of Black rappers. After an explosively successful opening night and the following sold out weeks, the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6th, 2015. Hamilton received a record-breaking 16 Tony Nominations, and won 11 including Best Musical.

2016-04-28 18:00:00

Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed Opens on Broadway

Written and directed by George C. Wolfe with choreography by Savion Glover, the Scott R*din-produced musical re-visited the creation and run of the 1921 Broadway musical Shuffle Along. Starring Tony Award winners Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, and Audra McDonald, and Tony nominees Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry alongside future Tony nominee Adrienne Warren, the show featured “the American theater’s leading African American singer-actors” at the head of a cast of over thirty Black performers.

2016-07-24 22:39:58

Shuffle Along... Closes on Broadway

After star Audra McDonald announced she would be taking two months off from the show for pregnancy leave, the producers, led by Sc*tt R*din, announced that Shuffle Along would close, despite the fact that a replacement for McDonald had not only already been cast, but was in rehearsals.

2018-09-20 07:27:00

Redrawing of Princess Tiana in Wreck it Ralph Sequel Announced By Color of Change PresidentRashad Robinson

Black owned petition website Color of Change helps secure huge victory for fans of Princess Tiana who were shocked to see Disney's first Black princess looking "nothing like her original character" in the Wreck it Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet.

2020-06-01 00:00:00

American Theater's Great Awakening

American Theater finally wakes up to its inherently racist ways. And the Black theater community's voices are lifted in an unprecedented way.

2020-06-16 00:00:00

A Change.org Petition to "Make Sure Disney Stops Casting White People For Roles That Require Real People of Color" Reaches 35,000 Supporters.

Over the course of 2 weeks a petition to Disney Parks and Resorts to stop casting white people in roles where BIPOC performers should be cast gained over 35,000 signatures. The public outcry went viral online and even captured the attention of Disney cast members who started a viral thread illustrating Disney's casting problem in viral concrete images.

Broadway to Blackface: Reflecting on A Complicit History

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