Progressive Mindsets in In Dahomey

The Lightfoot family in In Dahomey can be seen as representing very clear differences between the mindsets of black people in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Mr. Lightfoot, Mrs. Lightfoot, and Rosetta each exhibit varying degrees of a “progressive” mindset, showcased in Act two of the play. Mr. Lightfoot is the least progressive of the three. He is a well-off black man in the south, due to his former master’s death. He was left his former master’s house and wealth, and now his family lives pretty well. However, Mr. Lightfoot insists on continuing to call Mr. Goodman “Mars John”, and reminiscing about his past life with his master. There almost seems to be some form of respectability politics at play here, though not in the usual sense. Usually, respectability politics are a performance for white society; however, “Mars John” is dead, and therefore Mr. Lightfoot is only “performing” to himself, which seems to suggest it is not a performance at all. It appears that Mr. Lightfoot believes that “Mars John” is the respectful title, despite all the connotations and history that come with that term. Mrs. Lightfoot has a slightly more progressive mindset than Mr. Lightfoot. She very clearly takes issue with Mr. Lightfoot’s references to Mr. Goodman as “Mars John”, and makes sure to tell her husband so. She scolds him throughout the play for it, and doesn’t allow her own opinion to be nullified when Mr. Lightfoot continues to use the title “Mars John”. However, Mrs. Lightfoot is still less progressive than their daughter, Rosetta. Rosetta has at least two songs where she refers to a wish for black people to be treated equally to white people – one literally called “Leader of the Colored Aristocracy”, and one that discusses how a smart black girl got into a private, mostly white school because of her ability rather than money. While we don’t see Rosetta’s thoughts about calling Mr. Goodman “Mars John”, we can see that her mother seems to think that she is a little too progressive when she tells Mr. Lightfoot, “She might mean well, but she never does well.” These levels of progression in one family could quite easily be adapted to fit the progressions of the mindsets of black society at the time.

Art for the Sake of Art

Can you produce art for the sake of art? This is a tough question to deal with in regard to “In Dahomey”. The play’s original intention was asserted by its creators as a performance “written without any other object than to amuse.” “In Dahomey” is meant to be a lively, silly play put on by an all-black cast entering the minstrelsy scene. But, meaning and take-aways can be seen all throughout the play in the treatment of Me Sing, the back to Africa plot, depictions of the obstacles for African Americans in the north and south, and the theme of ownership (and the list continues!). Purpose, theme, and intentionality can be seen all throughout the plot of “In Dahomey”, but the importance of its art form is implicit. Being the first performance by an all-black cast meant the play could not just be for the sake of putting on a play. “In Dahomey” had immense importance, marking the entrance of black performers into the art scene.

How should we read “In Dahomey” if the intention of the creators is for entertainment, rather than reading into issues and arguments that the play presents? I believe that intentionality of the writer is important in the reading of plays, but the impact that their writings will have is unknown to them. It is the audience’s response that shapes the meaning of the play – isn’t that who and what performances are intended for?

The inability for “In Dahomey” to be any other wacky performance exhibits the burden of representation that was placed on the shoulders of this first all-black cast. This performance would reflect on the respectability of all black actors to follow, which is a great responsibility and pressure. Despite the controversial contents of its plot, “In Dahomey’s” importance cannot be forgotten, as it created the first step for black actors in the performance scene.

Breaking Barriers

Treating In Dahomey as a breakthrough musical is both beneficial and controversial. The representation from African American performers was groundbreaking for all art forms. In Daphne Brooks’ chapter Alien/Nation: Re-Imagining the Black Body, she explains the bewilderment of audiences, but also their amazement with the production. Williams and Walkers revival of the black body brought both confusion & appreciation with white and black audiences alike. The fact that white minstrel performers recognized these black performers as “professional competition” shifts the standard of minstrelsy as a racially demeaning form of art. With the introduction of blackface, there was intent to mock the black skin. Especially post-civil war, whites would not recognize blacks as “equals”. However, the ability for In Dahomey to perform well globally forces whites to recognize the legitimacy of black entertainers, and see them as people who are capable. Not only is this a big step for black entertainers, but a big step for the black people in general. This challenges the notion of “white vs. black”. 

With that being said, In Dahomey as a breakthrough is partially controversial because it was not the first musical to do world tours and be a global sensation. Furthermore, part of their use of blackface was to help audiences identify with the presentation of the black person. Although the play was revolutionary for future black entertainers, viewing the play as a breakthrough sort of fuels the idea of In Dahomey as spectacle (which is a whole other discussion). Contrary to what I mentioned earlier, this all-black cast that made use of racial stereotypes to identify with its audience also added to the relevance of minstrelsy & blackface. I wonder if without the civil rights movement, would this play have reinforced blackface as a parody. If that is the case, it only shifted the attention from blacks to another lesser group. Something similar to what Irishmen did with Boucicault’s Octoroon. They used theater as a means to integrate within American culture, and shifted the attention away from them. Not to say that this was the intention behind Williams’ and Walkers’ purpose for writing the play, but I wonder if they made things harder for other black people outside of entertainment.

Nevertheless, I think In Dahomey was a game changer for breaking racial-barriers. There is a level of respect, for not only the art but for the artist, when you can recognize a “lesser people” as talented and true craftsmen. To give credit to those performers and also see them as inferior would be contradicting. But then again, most of our history is contradicting. 

Problematic Progress in “In Dahomey”

Despite its problematic and dated elements, such as the use of blackface for black actors and the blatant prejudice against Me Sing, In Dahomey is still undoubtedly an important text in the greater canon of African-American theater and art in general because of the progress it made for their representation, although Williams and Walker employ troublesome tactics in their work.  In order to first reach their platform and deliver In Dahomey to both black and white audiences, Williams and Walker are essentially forced to include these stereotyped forms and caricatures in the play, because if they were to create an entirely new form of artistic expression, they would almost certainly be rejected by most of their white audiences because it would have contained nothing which they recognize as “black,” caused by decades of minstresly and Jim Crow shows.  Yet, even when the pair chooses to employ these caricatured depictions of race, they do so to subtly subvert, so the white audiences can invest themselves in a play which on the surface seems familiar, but its content is relatively new, especially within the history of older blackface productions.  As Brooks notes in her essay, “Walker was a visionary in his belief that African American entertainers should have access to owning their performances,” leading to his adaptation and subtle subversion of blackface theatrics in In Dahomey because of the platform he believes it will give to future African American creators to generate more authentic works.

Yet, in order to be more widely seen and to gain more attention, Williams and Walker still  resort to the use of pre-existing markers of blackface performance, despite the cast’s authentic African-American identity, to draw in audiences.  As seen in Irish reviews of the play, despite issues with the convoluted plot, audiences and critics both enjoyed the humor and dialogue, both helping and hurting the cause of Williams and Walker.  Many viewers, both white and black, enjoyed the humor of the work and the interactions of the characters, although these were some of the touchier subjects about the play when read in a modern context, especially with the adaptation of Jim Crow-esque performances.  Yet. once the work starts to diverge from the path which audiences are familiar with, most critics and audiences note how the play loses both steam and focus.  The reviews note that once the play transitions to Dahomey, in which Williams and Walker begin to display their message about the false perceptions the two have about the recolonization movement, one of the more overtly political theses of the play, many audiences and critics did not enjoy it nearly as much as the comedy and songs in the earlier parts.  Also, the ending cakewalk, meant to subvert and mock white practices, appears totally out of place to foreign audiences not in on the joke.  As a result, the work shows that not the black players, but rather the audience is “not yet ready” for an authentic black production; because Williams and Walker mix older racialized blackface and black artistic iconography with newer subversion and messaging, they create a bizarre and  imperfect, yet mildly entertaining play, more focused upon being a platform for others than creating a wholly new form of black artistic expression all on its own.

A New Perspective on Progress

In class this week, I was constantly questioning the cakewalk and whether one should view it as a tool of resistance. I seemed to be very fixed on the idea that it could not have been the tool that Brooks claimed it was, as it both seemed to be offensive and did not seem to be successful or recognized in the moment that it was performed. After much reflection, I have realized that I was approaching it from too harsh a guideline. In today’s society, we are pushed to strive for the best and to not be content until we have reached the place that we hope to end up. This is the mindset that I was applying to the cakewalk. I was demanding that it would adhere to a standard that would be impossible for it to have during the time it was made—it would have never been allowed to go on. In doing this, I lost sight of the importance of baby steps in controversial issues, such as racial struggles. 

Paving the way for progress is important, even if one is forced to do so in a transitional way. This is what Williams and Walker are doing with In Dahomey and its controversial inclusions, such as the cakewalk and black actors in blackface. They are getting their foot in the door, flipping the script normally used against blacks, and helping to set a foundation for the racial change to come. Representation is the first step to good representation. The reviews that we read may have played down the cultural and political significance of the cakewalk and the reclamation by the blacks, but history has not. Williams and Walker were exploiting the cakewalk and playing up other negative stereotypes for their gain and to the advantage of the black theater community. The very fact that we study this play so many years later supports the importance and overall impact that Williams and Walker had in paving the way for blacks on stage and in the American culture. Change starts with one person or group of people and their reclamation makes it possible for the larger reclamation.

This situation reminds me a lot of the way that I, and many others, view the n-word. The n-word is a word that I think is inherently derogatory and rooted in hate. There are blacks, however, who see the reclamation of it as empowering and a form of resistance that is used in both art and everyday speech. While it may appear to be problematic, there is some correct thinking within it. Their opinion of it is what really matters, as it contributes to their individual liberation. The n-word was used to define the blacks of the past, but now they are using it to represent themselves and attempting to redefine its very meaning. They are using the word in their own context and with their own agency. This action will perhaps also be a gateway for cultural change, or at the very least, a conversation starter.

Using Spectacle to Hold Open the Door: In Dahomey

We’ve talked about spectacle a number of times in this class. We asked whether Gulliver was a spectacle in Lilliput and the country of the Houyhnhnms, which seems likely in both instances in the way he is seen as almost a tourist attraction. For instance, he writes in Lilliput that “as the news of my arrival spread throughout the kingdom, it brought prodigious numbers of rich, idle, and curious people to see me (Swift, 15).” Additionally, we wondered whether Douglass was a spectacle in Ireland, arriving at a more inconclusive answer.

However, in In Dahomey, the question of spectacle is never in doubt. As Daphne Brooks writes about the play, “The press trumpeted the arrival of African-American performers in a musical of their own making and encouraged the public to attend the production, if only to observe the odd miracle of African-American theater (Brooks, 207).” As this quote shows, the all-black cast was a spectacle regardless of the content of the play. On one hand, this intentional spectacle gave African-Americans an important viewership that at the very least opened the door for black actors to become more prominent in theatre. Yet it also put limitations on what these women and men could achieve through this play. The all-black cast made this play a work of “black art,” which was thus undeniably political. All art made by a marginalized person is automatically political and can longer solely entertain. Thus, if the writers of In Dahomey attempted to present obvious critiques of the color line, racial discrimination, and the Jim Crow South, they would lose the precious viewership achieved by this spectacle (at least in the United States). As a result, the play portrays the racist stereotypes of African-Americans in theatre.

Brooks argues that, through Mose and Me Sing, the play mocks individualism in the black community (specifically through emigration) by exposing the greed and xenophobia that undermines such an attitude (Brooks, 246). In a way, this critique, though not explicit in the text, makes perfect sense. The writers of In Dahomey reject individualism themselves. Though they could have pursued a more overt and aggressive critique of the color line, they instead utilize their spectacle to place a foot in the door so that others, like those writers in the Harlem Renaissance, could present a more overt case. Reversing the rhetoric we have seen in the past, though the subversive critiques of society in In Dahomey show that the writers were ready to attack racial injustice, the finished product of the play shows a recognition that the world “was not yet ready.” Yet, when it became ready, In Dahomey ensured that black artists would have an entryway into the conversation.

Reclaiming Minstrelsy

This week’s readings were an interesting extension of our conversations about minstrelsy, making a different framework for considering its role in racial history and identity. White people donning blackface and performing their ideas about blackness clearly and overtly comes from racist narratives and a desire for Irish and other immigrants to separate themselves in order to be read as white. Brooks’ ideas about minstrelsy in The Octoroon provided the first complication to this reading, demonstrating the subversive places where minstrelsy actually allows these identities to interact, creating the space for racially liminal bodies.  The racial nuance of In Dahomey takes this one step further. As a piece of traveling theater, it powerfully allowed for a reclamation of black narratives and bodies through an overtly racist medium. 

Williams and Walker factor into themes of exhibitionism and exchange of their era. Getting their start in performing africaness at a world’s fair, they not only demonstrate their cultural distance from the “homeland” they enact in In Dahomey, they also begin to participate in the various ways identity was codified — it wasn’t just minstrelsy on the stage.  Their performance of blackness on stage, however, is meant to serve a distinctly different purpose than the otherness on display at the fairs.  In Dahomey was pushing for a collective artistic agenda, cleverly allowing for empowerment under the guise of debasement or debauchery.  As every creative mind involved in the performance was black, they could take back this medium that was used against them and repurpose it right under the nose of white audiences.  I still have some questions about their enactment about this however, and our discussions of the successfulness of this kind of subversion touched on that. In Dahomey demonstrates the imposition of structures of racism and racial identity constructions that make its subversive elements hard or impossible to read by contemporary white audiences. Does its artistic vision and reclamation of these tropes by cooperative black efforts counteract the continued performance of blackness as an other? As a transitional piece, from our 21st century perspective, I think it can be constructively read both ways — despite the fact that it presents racist tropes of performative blackness, it was a step forward and a form of empowerment necessary to make space for later black performers and allowing them to perform without needing to perform race as well.

Authenticity in “In Dahomey”

One issue Brooks touches on is the issue of authenticity in “In Dahomey” and how it relates to the mixed audience of the play. While Walker claims that the play served as a space for the “natural” black performer, the play was also created for a racially mixed audience that had different notions of what was “naturally” black. White attendees wished to see an “authentic” portrayal of African Americans, i.e. performers in blackface singing and dancing in ridiculous fashion; this audience was fascinated by the “spectacle” of seeing a production created by a company consisting of only African Americans. But the black audience was watching for a performance that portrayed a more realistic interpretation of the African American condition. “In Dahomey,” however, fails to be authentic in the white and black sense due to its nature as a transitional work.

Because “In Dahomey’ functions as a transitional piece, it cannot be fully “authentic” in either the black or white sense of the word. The play caters to a white audience by building the story around an absurd plot: the hunt of two detectives for a silver casket containing a cat’s eye. But it also caters to the black audience in the ways that it mocks the whiteness of “high society” in many of its musical numbers. The effect that this play has on its target audience is confusing because its target audience is the entirety of American society. Williams blacking up can be viewed as either satire of white playgoers or adoption of white performing traditions. The songs can either be seen as expressing satire of white America’s necessity to be the highest members of society or expressing genuine hopes that blacks will one day become members of that high society. The racist treatment of Me Sing can be interpreted as blacks pointing out their ability to be on equal footing as whites or as genuine racist treatment of the Asian American community. Depending which audience one is a part of, this play can either have great meaning or meaninglessness, which is why all the critics hated the play. It is a genuinely confusing production being that it is a transitional piece catering to an extremely wide audience. One cannot search for true authenticity in this play (whatever that may mean) because it is an experiment in theater that aims not for “true authenticity” but to bring black performers to the forefront of theatrical production, which the play ultimately succeeds in.

English Ignorance with Regard to The Octoroon

The Octoroon, in it’s original form, is an attempt to give agency to Zoe, a character that is in-between different races and treated as an other by both of those races. The original ending, which shows her poison herself, serves as a final act of agency where she chooses not to identify as either white or black, but as her own person. She chooses not to marry another man, and thus avoids conforming to a full “white transformation.” But in the English version where she is married, she fully becomes a member of the white family, and thus rejects her eighth-black heritage. This ending is problematic because it turns a story about enforcing one’s agency when one does not fit into a certain category into a story that teaches the audience that conformity to whiteness is the solution to Zoe’s issue of racial identity.

While the English applauded the edited ending because it was “happier,” I believe that this ending is far darker due to the pure ignorance of the viewership. The English audience that watched this version of the Octoroon looked at themselves as supporters of the anti-slavery movement, claiming that the institution of slavery itself was purely American and thus “anti-British.” This happy ending of the Octoroon gives the English an opportunity to exclude themselves from the history of slavery, acting as viewers rather than agents of that system. In actuality, the English were the creators of the system of slavery, and deserve a good majority of the blame for all the atrocities that happened as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What makes the English audience’s sentiments of the play even more troublesome, however, is the appall they expressed with the original ending. They complained because it was too dark, but there are plenty of Shakespeare plays with endings where the main character or prospective lover of the play dies. Romeo and Juliet specifically has a death that involves Juliet poisoning herself, just like the Octoroon. So, the English most likely did not believe that this ending was too dark, but that giving the black main character agency through her death was a problem that could only be solved by an alternate ending where she embraces her whiteness, and thus better fits in with a higher sense of English culture.

Tragic vs. Happy Ending?

Upon reading The Octoroon, I was struck by how Dion Boucicault felt the need to write two different endings – the American, tragic ending, and the British, happy ending. One ending contains the death of Zoe, and one ending leads to George and Zoe getting married. I wanted to think about just what the changing of the ending does for the play, since the change is a major one. I feel as though taking away Zoe’s death and allowing the play to have a happy ending (with justice served, a marriage, and Zoe being set free) takes away the message of the play. Zoe’s suicide serves as an important event, and it places her tale among one tradition of slave narratives. The trope of committing suicide or homicide in order to prevent the pain that comes from slavery is a common one (for example, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Placing Zoe, a woman who looks white, into this category of slave literature is probably meant to make audiences at that time uncomfortable. First because the idea of a white woman being subjected to slavery is uncomfortable in general for a white audience, and second because she ends up dying for no reason in the end. This uncomfortable feeling is necessary to the story. Without it, it is harder to pass on a message. The British ending downplays the seriousness of the issue of the “drop of blood” rule, because in the end everything works out alright. I think that changing the ending was not the best decision to make, even if the British audience was unhappy with it.