BLACK MUSICAL THEATRE: From Coontown to Dreamgirls by Allen Woll

BLACK MUSICAL THEATRE: From Coontown to Dreamgirls

Email this review


A comprehensive if occasionally superficial survey of black musicals from their origins in the minstrel show to their culmination in such Tony Award-winning offerings as The Wiz and Dreamgirls. Though faced with a lack of documentation concerning early productions and performers, Woll has nonetheless produced a work that is revelatory and consistently involving. And, ironically, the early productions and performers are more thoroughly researched and come across with greater impact than the later theatrical pieces--even though the excerpts quoted from these early productions are likely to strike today's readers as the rankest kind of stereotyping. The coverage of the more recent stagings, by contrast, often consists of little more than wrap-ups of contemporary reviews and performance statistics. A thematic thread that ties much of Woll's research together is the effort of black writers, producers, and actors such as Langston Hughes and Vinette Carroll to establish their own autonomies within the theatrical world. The struggle has not been an easy one and, according to the author, has yet to be resolved--the majority of decisions concerning the themes, composition, and promotion of black musicals are still made by whites. There's also a particularly interesting chapter devoted to the composition and staging of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess; now regarded as an American classic, that work at first confused reviewers, many of whom were unable to categorize it and thus dismissed it as a failure. Among the other figures who make up the dramatis personae here are Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, Eubie Blake, Bert Williams and Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Ethel Waters--their portraits are affectionate, and yet critical when criticism is called for. Woll views his subject with an evenhandedness that is convincing in establishing the importance of the black musical. A welcome addition, then, to the shelves of those interested in the American theater.

Pub Date: March 22nd, 1989
ISBN: 8071-1469-3
Publisher: Louisiana State Univ.
Review Posted Online:



NonfictionREDEFINING DIVA by Sheryl Lee Ralph
by Sheryl Lee Ralph