Early African-American Broadway Performers: Bert Williams and George William Walker in "In Dahomey", 1903.(1)
Black musical comedies, operettas, revues, and minstrel shows were part of the spectrum of American popular entertainment in the early twentieth century. These shows, with provocative music and dance, contributed both material and performers for what was to become the standard Broadway musical. One of the primary entertainers during this era was the incomparable blackface comedian Bert Williams (1874-1922).
Although Williams' most famous performances are considered to be those in the Ziegfeld Follies and on the vaudeville stage, his best contributions to African-American theater were made with George William Walker (1872-1911) in black musical comedies. The act was known as Williams and Walker. Williams played a woeful, dour bumpkin character while Walker was the straight comic dapper character. They were joined in their shows by Walker's wife, Aida Overton Walker (1882?-1914). Mrs. Walker was a pioneer black female dancer and choreographer.
Based primarily in New York City, Bert Williams and the Walkers starred in a string of early musicals; Senegambian Carnival, A Lucky Coon, The Policy Players and The Sons of Ham. Although these shows had progressively increased the Williams and Walker company's popularity, it was not until they presented In Dahomey in 1903, that they gained serious national recognition as major black entertainers. It is to a discussion of the New York premier of In Dahomey which we will now turn.
In Dahomey was composed by the important African-American Will Marion Cook (1869-1944). Cook contributed music for most of the Williams and Walker shows beginning with the Senegambian Carnival in 1898 and ending with Bandanna Land (1907-1909). Cook's lyricist was the renowned African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. But the relationship was a stormy one and by 1902, the men split during the writing of an operetta: The Cannibal King. The Cannibal King had limited success and sometime in 1902, Cook decided to revamp the musical for Williams and Walker.
Helen Armstead Johnson argues that The Cannibal King and In Dahomey had much in common.
1. Both are set in Florida.
2. In Cannibal King, there is a lost box containing gold. In In Dahomey, there is a lost casket.
3. Both are satires on socially ambitious people, and the song "Leader of Colored Aristocracy" appears in both.
4. Each has two masters of chicanery sneaking up on a house to enter a window.
5. Each has an educated, eligible daughter being groomed for marriage and society.
6. The song, "The Czar" appears in both.(3)
In addition, In Dahomey, as suggested by the title, had a theme which dealt with Africa. This was something new in 1902. It is likely that George Walker was responsible for inserting this thematic innovation. He and Williams had impersonated Africans in the 1894 San Francisco Mid-Winter Exposition, substituting for Africans. When the native African performers arrived, Williams and Walker met them and were impressed. They realized that their stereotypes of African people were false. Walker later wrote:
We were not long in deciding that if we should ever reach the point of having a show of our own, we would delineate and feature native African characters, as far as we could, and still remain American, and make our acting interesting and entertaining to American audiences.(4)
With In Dahomey, Walker saw a chance to make his dream come true. Walker and the show's book writer, Alex Rogers, however, realized that there was a difference between creating African characters and writing a play about Africa. Since the subplot of the play has to do with Afro-American "back to Africa" movements, only part of In Dahomey's plot was set in Africa. The theater program of In Dahomey told the basic plotline for audiences:
An old Southern Negro, `Lightfoot' by name, president of the Dahomey Colonization Society, loses a silver casket (jewelry box) which, to use his language, has a cat scratched on the back. …