From 1898 to the early 1960s, the commercially produced musicals and plays featuring predominantly black casts were, however inaccurately, thought to comprise what is known as the black theatre. The 1960s saw the birth of a network of institutional, not-for-profit black theatres in New York and other major cities. This network changed the face of what was considered to be the black theatre. Recently, however, a new force has arisen that has led the black theatre through yet another transformation. Gospel musicals, once viewed by theatre purists as song concerts palmed off as theatre onto a nondiscriminating audience, have surpassed the more venerated institutional theatres, if not in terms of aesthetic excellence, then surely in popular appeal with contemporary African-American audiences.
Generally speaking, the primary—if not sole—objective of the independently produced musicals has always been to turn a huge profit. Any consciousness-raising along the way is lagniappe, a bonus. Still speaking generally, the institutional theatres have stressed thought-provoking dramas about the human condition, and many have had a political bent. Regardless of generalities, based on its seniority and historically much higher profile, the black musical has always been the sector of the black theatre most readily identifiable by—and accessible to—mainstream audiences.
Throughout the nearly century-long history of the black musical in America, two aspects have remained constant. With but a few exceptions, notably in the black awareness era of the 1960s and 1970s, most black musical shows have been created to appeal primarily to white audiences. Furthermore, the black musical, notoriously non-innovative, has displayed a penchant for trendiness; one commercially successful show inevitably spawns a slew of imitators. The gospel musical, a phenomenon born in the early 1960s, contradicts the first constant in that its targeted audience is African-American. Moreover, as we shall see, much of the cloying redundancy that plagued the five recognizable trends in the black musical’s history before the gospel shows gained popularity has compromised the aesthetic qualities of the newer movement.