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.