An exhibition at the Gallatin Galleries explores seminal moments in Black theater history and their impact on musical theater today
Widely considered the first Black theater in the country, the African Grove Theater got its start when William Alexander Brown, a retired West Indian steamship steward, started hosting poetry readings and short plays for Black New Yorkers in his backyard on Thomas Street, Greenwich Village in 1821. The African Grove soon expanded into a 300-seat theater, including a large tea garden, in the heart of Washington Square on Mercer and Bleecker Streets. The company was known for staging Shakespearean classics performed by Black actors, ballets, comedies, and even an original play written by Brown himself (The Drama of King Shotaway), drawing sizable audiences and creating a radical alternative to other American theaters of its time. The African Grove Theater and its performers transformed American arts and culture—and raised questions about audience expectations of Black art that are still relevant today.
One hundred years later, Shuffle Along (music by Eubie Blake, lyrics by Noble Sissle and book by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles) opened with an all-Black cast at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.—before moving to the Sixty-third Street Theatre in New York City—and became an instant hit. The show played a remarkable 504 performances on Broadway and the high-energy dancing and Blake and Sissle’s upbeat jazz score inspired a slew of Broadway shows, such as Rent and West Side Story, that changed the theater landscape forever.
The years between these two major milestones saw the emergence of key performers and performances that fueled the evolution of musical theater as we know it and remain a part of cultural memory today. The Gallatin Galleries at NYU is spotlighting this history, including the renowned Williams and Walker company and “Queen of the Cakewalk” Aida Overton Walker, through a new exhibition, Transformation! African American Theater 1821-1921 and Beyond, From the African Grove Theater to Shuffle Along, that opened February 1. The show is curated by Gallatin Galleries curator Keith Miller, Professor Michael D Dinwiddie, and NYU Gallatin students Cheyenne Bryant, Gabriela Perez, and Jasmine Buckley and contains archival reproductions from the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the archives at Harvard, Yale, and Duke.
Associated programming will be accessible to the public via Zoom and includes an opening event with NYU Tisch professor Shanga Parker performing two versions of a monologue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Ray Proctor from Tulane University discussing styles of Shakespearean performance in the 19th and 20th centuries (Feb 2); a panel discussion exploring the contradictory notions of blackface minstrelsy (Feb 9); a talk on the remarkable career of Madame Sissieretta “Black Patti” Jones, an acclaimed opera singer whose 80+ person troupe disrupted systems of oppression during the genesis of Jim Crow (Feb 16); and a performance featuring a classic medley of tunes by Bert Williams and Eubie Blake (Feb 23).
NYU News spoke to student curators Cheyenne Bryant and Gabriela Perez about the exhibition and this transformative period in Black theater history.
Why did you decide to focus on this hundred-year stretch of theater history?
Cheyenne: The time period represented in the show was inventive but also difficult for Black actors. We wanted to celebrate them, elevate them, and give them space. Opening the exhibition during Black History Month is intended to help give a voice to this crucial moment in history.
Gabriela: NYU eventually acquired the land that formerly housed the African Grove Theater, so it felt important to bring the history about this location to the NYU student body. Most of us participating in this project didn’t know any of this before we started researching, but we’ve come to learn and love the history and appreciate the people involved in a way we couldn’t before.
Cheyenne: We’ve traced a historical trail and slowly uncovered important people, the roles that Black actors had to take on, and the relationship they had with the entertainment industry. For example, Ira Aldridge was the first Black person to play Othello in a Shakespearean play in a professional theater, and the scrutiny he faced in America and overseas showed us how daunting a journey a Black actor might face and how they overcame that adversity. We wanted to highlight the well-known actors as well as focus specifically on women’s role in theater at the time. Stories around these central figures help paint a picture of what Black theater was at that moment.
Was the African Grove Theater a welcoming artistic home for Black actors?
Gabriela: At the time, the African Grove Theater—and what came from that—was an uncharacteristically inclusive environment that allowed for people to have a space to express themselves through art. The first play written and produced by Black actors was staged in the African Grove Theater. It wasn’t common for women to be a part of productions and the African Grove Theater also gave women that space.
Cheyenne: In the beginning at the African Grove Theater, a lot of Black actors were using European roles and plays as their creative outlet. This is how they started their theater companies. That was a point of tension because you had Black actors playing Othello or King Richard the III, and White audiences at the time found the practice to be inflammatory. They didn’t take Black actors performing traditionally European roles seriously. This was especially true with Ira Aldridge playing Othello, because White people would typically play Othello, a Black character, in blackface. There was a lot of mockery of Ira Aldridge in the beginning.
Cheyenne: Throughout history, the Black community has often had to exist in the margins of mainstream society. We had to be more experimental, more innovative, and more inventive with the dynamics at play. The experimentation that was going on—such as women in theater or Black actors in blackface, and the musical theater Black artists were creating—was the beginning of modern musical theater. Shows like Shuffle Along and In Dahomey were the early predecessors of the modern contemporary musical theater we see today.
How are you showcasing this history in the exhibition?
Gabriela: We broke down the 100 years into four sections divided by theme. In the first room, we introduce the beginnings of the African Grove Theater and the first major actors in those shows. In the second room, we’re addressing the topic of minstrelsy and cakewalk. The third room will focus on women in theater, including Sissieretta Jones, an internationally-renowned opera singer who was known as Black Patti, and the Hyers Sisters, early pioneers of African American theater who produced the play Out of Bondage, a play examining slavery written by Joseph Bradford. The fourth room will explore specific productions, In Dahomey and Shuffle Along. This room will also examine the role of Williams and Walker, singer-songwriters who created a lot of these plays and were actors themselves.
You discussed how Black actors working in the late 1800s and early 1900s had to face extreme racism, and minstrelsy is an unavoidable part of that. How are you handling some of the more challenging aspects of that period in theater history?
Cheyenne: We’ve handpicked minstrelsy photos for the wall that aren’t as overtly racist because it is a part of the history and we don’t think that erasing it would be beneficial if we’re to truly analyze what was going on at the time. The more overtly racist images are in a booklet, and we’re going to have a disclaimer on the booklet saying we felt compelled to reference and acknowledge them because of the sheer quantity we found when going through the archives.
I was not prepared for the huge amount of racist iconography. We had this conception that this kind of imagery was an anomaly in history, but it wasn’t—it was very much a part of popular culture. That in itself was shocking, and having this booklet and an accompanying text written by Michael Dinwiddie to help contextualize it was really important. It’s not something that can be shied away from.
Gabriela: The biggest shock to all of us was realizing how central minstrelsy and blackface was to the Black theater scene. There were Black actors, like Cole and Johnson, doing blackface themselves, which is important to recognize. We recognize these images are inflammatory, and they were for us personally in the process of researching the show. It was hard for us to deal with, and we want to ensure no one is forced to see those images, but also give them the option to engage, with the proper disclaimer, to understand what it is they’re looking at. We’re not framing the show with minstrelsy at the forefront. It was very much a part of Black theater history, as it was a part of American popular culture. There’s no way to untangle it, but the show itself is not primarily about that.
You mentioned that the exhibition explores cakewalk along with minstrelsy. Can you explain what that is?
Cheyenne: Cakewalk was a tradition that started in Southern plantations around the 1800s. It began as a dancing contest that usually happened at get togethers and on weekends. Enslaved people got together and competed as couples. The winner would be prized with a piece of cake if they danced the best—hence the cake walk.
What is particularly interesting is how they danced. It was a celebration—but it was also an act of resistance. They would mimic and parody the mannerisms of their White enslavers, and they would take the ballroom promenades and waltzes of European style and exaggerate the moves, incorporating a lot of high kicks, stiff necks, and cartoonish gestures intended to make a mockery of the enslavers.
The thing is, it would usually go over the head of the White people watching the dances. They didn't see it as a mockery; they probably saw it as just Black people dancing. The irony and the political resistance being performed by slaves went largely unnoticed by White enslavers.
It became tradition for Black communities, even after emancipation, to hold these dance contests and still have the prize of cake. That’s where the phrases “it's a piece of cake” and “it takes the cake” come from. Not necessarily because the cakewalk dance itself is easy—it’s a very beautiful, graceful dance—but because it required a lot of great skill, and a good dancer would make it look easy.
Cakewalk was later appropriated by White performers engaged in minstrelsy. In the 1870s, after emancipation, when the cakewalk was already a tradition in Black communities, the White performers looked at the cakewalk and appropriated it to make fun of Black people. They didn’t understand the inner mechanisms of the dance, as resistance or as Black people making fun of their White masters. They saw it as Black people trying to emulate White people and parallel themselves with White culture. They decided to make a mockery of it and to make it a caricature and to make it more grotesque.
Once you get into the 1890s, when Black people were going into vaudeville and minstrelsy routines, there was this active reclamation that happened with the Williams and Walker company, where they performed the appropriated cakewalk to say “We're the real Black people performing the real cakewalk.”
It gets into this muddled cycle of Black performers starting something, and then White people imitating it, and then Black people imitating the White people that were originally imitating the Black people. Certain traditions get transformed and reclaimed, and cakewalk is just one example.
Can you explain why Black actors sometimes performed in blackface?
Cheyenne: It’s difficult to think about it and hard to conceptualize why a Black actor would perform in blackface and play a caricature. But a better question is: What choices did Black actors have back then? How were they allowed to portray themselves when Black identity and representation was so limited?
Cheyenne: Blackface became part of Williams and Walker’s routine: Bert Williams would perform in blackface and play a caricature while George Walker wore no makeup. Many Black actors sometimes performed in blackface and through this, they were able to move away from the harmful and derogatory stereotypes depicted by White actors, subvert and humanize the original caricature, and help push forward representations of Black people on the stage.
Black actors wore the mask, and how much of that was really a choice? There's the choice of actually putting on blackface, sure, but there’s also a choice in playing with black identity and reclaiming the caricature and challenging the demonization of Black identity that White actors had created. The scrutiny and pressure that Black actors faced in this time had a real impact on their bodies and minds. We’ll never know exactly what was going on in their minds because there’s so much historical distance, but I do think what they did was its own act of courage and bravery. There was so much violence against Black people and so much racial tension, but they still went up there to create art, subvert expectations, entertain and make people laugh, as well as engage in an intentional political act—which, as Claudia Roth Pierpoint suggested in her New Yorker piece “Behind the Mask”, is its own kind of miracle.