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.
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.