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Wed, 02.18.1903

The First Black Play On Broadway Opens

In Dahomey, 1903

*The first showing of In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy was on this date in 1903.

Theatre historian Gerald Bordman described this landmark Black musical comedy as "the first full-length musical written and played by blacks to be performed at a major Broadway house."  It featured music by Will Marion Cook, a book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Jesse A. Shipp wrote it as a satire on the American Colonization Society's back-to-Africa movement of the earlier nineteenth century.

In Dahomey is regarded as a marquee turning point for Black representation in a vaudeville theater. It opened at the New York Theatre, starring George Walker and Bert Williams, two iconic figures of vaudeville entertainment at the time. The musical ran for 53 completed performances, including two tours in the United States and one tour of the United Kingdom. In total, In Dahomey ran for a combined four years.  In Dahomey closed on April 4, 1903, after 53 performances (considered a successful run).

Based on the show's New York success, the producers of In Dahomey transferred the entire production to England on April 28, 1903, with a staging at the Shaftesbury Theatre, followed by a provincial tour around England. This was capped by a command performance celebrating the ninth birthday of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace. In Dahomey was heralded as "the most popular musical show in London."  The musical was revived on Broadway, opening at the Grand Opera House on August 27, 1904, and closing on September 10, 1904, after 17 performances. Bert Williams (as Shylock Homestead), George Walker (as Rareback Pinkerton), and Aida Overton Walker (as Rosetta Lightfoot) reprised their roles.

It had a tour in the United Kingdom, followed by a highly successful tour of the United States, which lasted four years.  It was the first American Black musical to be performed abroad.  This was followed by a major 40-week tour across the United States. It played such cities as San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon; and St. Louis, Missouri, turning in a profit of $64,000.

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