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.