Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

Themes and Values in Afro-American Librettos and Book Musicals, 1898-1930

HELEN ARMSTEAD- JOHNSON

An examination of the colorful history of Afro-Americans in the musical theatre reveals that theatre historians have rarely applied penetrating scholarship to the librettos of operettas and the books of musical comedies. A considerable number of librettos exist for which the music has not been found, and, similarly, musical manuscripts exist for which librettos and books continue to be elusive. For Afro-Americans, the turn-of-the-century operettas represented the transitional period between minstrelsy and the musical comedies of the 1920s. In form these operettas were not innovative, but in cultural content and musical style they were. Librettos, lyrics, and musical comedy scripts illuminate the concerns of authors as they wrote about their people and the times.

The various treatments of these concerns reveal a consistency in major themes, which include African heritage, the folk tradition, education, social class, color, varieties of black-white relationships, money, power-- including imperialistic--the dream, love, and chicanery. The themes of the librettos and books illuminate the values of the writers and their people. Of special significance is what these documents reveal about things Negroes were not supposed to think about, or were considered incapable of thinking about. Critic Alan Dale projected a prevailing attitude when he reviewed Bert Williams and George Walker Abyssinia. The New York American of 23 February 1906 quoted him as follows: " Alan Dale says 'Abyssinia' is Negro Show of Too-Exalted Ambition." Dale wrote, "[It was] something past 10 o'clock when we had begun to realize that 'Abyssinia' was a coon show in name only; that, in reality, it was most serious near-grand opera for which we were totally unprepared."

The book and lyrics by Jesse Shipp and Alex Rogers dealt with the court of King Menelik II, an actual king. With regard to adjusting the monetary system, Chief Justice Tegulet informs Menelik that "the report looking to the re-organization of our financial system is unfinished. The present medium of exchange has been in vogue for many centuries and is very

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