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.