Reference Entry

Entertainment Industry and African Americans

William Pencak

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Entertainment Industry and African Americans

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African American entertainment traditions were well established by 1890. The first black theater was the African Grove in New York, founded in 1821 and featuring Ira Aldridge, one of the finest actors of the day; both Shakespeare and comedies were performed. Destroyed by a white mob in 1823, the black actors there, and elsewhere, nevertheless continued to perform. Aldridge himself went to Europe for the last thirty years of his life. African American bands were highly prized by both whites and blacks for civic entertainments, the most famous of the early nineteenth century being that of Francis Johnson, who composed and performed the music for General Lafayette's return to Philadelphia in 1824. Blacks appeared both in their own minstrel shows and as performers with mostly white groups in the years after the Civil War.Plays written and performed by African Americans began to appear in the 1890s at the Chicago World's Fair, on Broadway, and in cities throughout the North. Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) had lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar and music by Will Marion Cook and featured Bert Williams, whom W. C. Fields considered the greatest comedian—and saddest man—he ever met. Williams raised the art of black comedy above the stereotypes of Sambo (the subservient black) and Zip Coon (the rascally black), his most famous routine being a silent poker game that he played with himself. Ironically, during an era when segregation and lynching reached new heights, most African American characters, on stage or in “coon” songs, whether portrayed by blacks or whites, appeared as lazy, happy creatures who perhaps picked a little cotton while waiting for the next steamboat to arrive. In the same league with Williams was Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, who originated the “Here Come da Judge” routine revived in modern times by Flip Wilson as a humorous critique of racially biased justice.The cakewalk itself was a widely popular dance form—the French composer Claude Debussy even wrote one—that began as African Americans mimicking the pretensions of white ballroom dancers; unfortunately, whites viewed the costumes and dance steps as signs of the blacks’ own vulgarity and ostentation rather than as a way of combining fun and social criticism. Cakewalks were incorporated as numbers in vaudeville, the most popular form of entertainment in America from the 1890s to the early 1920s, when films replaced it. These were variety shows—such as those later found on television, most notably Ed Sullivan's show—in which numerous performers sang, danced, or performed comic routines. White vaudeville shows sometimes had a token black performer—usually enacting a demeaning black stereotype—but all-black vaudeville groups flourished, too, and appealed to whites as well as blacks.Challenging Stereotypes.In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, trusts and cartels that made large profits for owners and paid bad wages to workers dominated many industries. This was true of the black entertainment world, where TOBA (the Theater Owners' Booking Association) controlled who could perform where; disgruntled actors said that “TOBA” really stood for “Tough on Black Actors” or “Tough on Black Asses.” TOBA provided much-needed protection for black performers in southern cities, where they were otherwise subject to arbitrary arrests and violence.Several TOBA performers dissociated African Americans from the usual stereotypes and won the respect of white audiences. Bert Williams—George Washington Carver claimed that Williams “smiled his way into people's hearts” and did more for their race than he had—was by common consent the finest comic actor, black or white, in America in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The composer and pianist Eubie Blake always wore a dinner jacket at the keyboard and performed variations on African American themes much like classical works. The Nicholas Brothers dressed immaculately and sang and danced without pandering to stereotypes. The singers Elisabeth Welch and Ethel Waters dropped racial accents and sang popular music beautifully, as did Lena Horne later. The Mills Brothers developed their own unique, soft, instrumental style of singing.Also elevating the image of African Americans were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choral group founded at Fisk University in 1871. They raised money for this historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee, by touring America and Europe and performing traditional spirituals, but in the restrained manner of the immensely popular white choral groups that offered concerts of classical religious and patriotic music. By the early twenty-first century black university choirs were commonplace: for instance, Penn State's Essence of Joy regularly tours Europe and the United States and makes CDs. Gospel music has always been used in worship, with many choirs containing mixed races, but outstanding singers who also performed outside church and on recordings have been Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams, and Rosetta Tharpe. Like gospel groups such as the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Ridley Singers, these singers have toured and performed in both secular and sacred venues. The first African American classical singers to attain worldwide fame—the tenor Roland Hayes, the contralto Marian Anderson, and the bass Paul Robeson—mixed spirituals with classical repertoire in their recitals, demonstrating to the world that the folk music of black Americans was comparable to the works of the great European masters.In the early twentieth century the best African American performers found in Europe a more tolerant and profitable atmosphere than in their homeland. Josephine Baker was the rage of Paris in the 1920s with her exotic dancing: she remained in France for the rest of her life, starring as a singer, dancer, and entertainer and making several films. Hayes, Anderson, and Robeson—also an excellent dramatic actor and film star—three of the finest classically trained singers of any race for whom recordings survive, all toured extensively in Europe. Reports of their success overseas paved the way for triumphant returns to America. In America, Robeson used his art to champion radical political causes, which led to revocation of his passport and the end of performance opportunities during the 1950s.The dignified “Miss Anderson,” as everyone called her, became a great, though apolitical, symbol of African Americans and the struggle for civil rights. Her 1939 concert before more than seventy-five thousand people at the Lincoln Memorial—she was not allowed to perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and other high-profile people helped arrange the Lincoln Memorial venue—was the first time that this site in Washington, D.C., was used for a mass demonstration to support social justice. Late in her career, at age fifty-seven in 1955, Anderson became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, thereby opening the nation's major opera houses to black musicians for the first time. In 1953 the soprano Leontyne Price had been the first African American to sing with the Met, but the concert was not at the Met's own opera house.After World War I, black music from three genres—ragtime, blues, and jazz—made its way north from New Orleans, especially to New York and Chicago, with the movement of large numbers of African Americans to northern cities. Ragtime's most famous exponent was Scott Joplin, who died at about age fifty after heartbreaking efforts to have his opera Treemonisha (1910) performed. Treemonisha now ranks next to Porgy and Bess (composed by a Jew, George Gershwin) as the most important opera that sympathetically and powerfully treats the African American experience. Blues and jazz overlapped, with the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong, among others, excelling in both. These two styles, the foundation of most of American popular music in the twentieth century, began with the street and bar bands of New Orleans. Along with Memphis and Chicago, New Orleans continued to be the nation's center for jazz and blues in the early twenty-first century. Some of the finest blues musicians have been singers, including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Joe Turner, and B. B. King; for jazz, notable instrumentalists include John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Wynton Marsalis—who also plays classical music—and notable singers include Ray Charles (although he was too eclectic to categorize), Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan.Music Industry. Quincy Jones conducts in a recording studio, New York City, 1962. Photograph by Bettye Lane. © Bettye LaneBut as Louis Armstrong's honest and powerful autobiography Satchmo (1954) reveals, the New Orleans music scene was a world of brutality and poverty for musicians who needed white club owners to protect them from both police and civilian violence and to help them earn at least a marginal existence. In the North blacks owned their own establishments, became unionized musicians in many cases, performed to the acclaim of both whites and blacks at many venues such as the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and achieved both nationwide fame—through radio presentations—and substantial incomes. Many famous black performers played at the Cotton Club in Harlem, but only whites were allowed in the audiences there.During the 1920s, spokesmen for the Harlem Renaissance such as the African American Alain Locke and the white writer Carl Van Vechten elevated African American music and theater to a cultural phenomenon equal to the black writings and artwork of the decade. Paul Robeson was featured in premieres of plays by Eugene O'Neill offered by the Provincetown Players, and Langston Hughes's intelligent treatment of African American themes successfully appeared on Broadway. Musical shows by African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s were more widely popular and successful than were the more serious theater productions by theater groups such as the Krigwa Players; African American playwrights were much less successful than were the novelists, poets, or musicians. Particularly notable was the musical Shuffle Along (1921) by the African Americans Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake: it made about five hundred performances on Broadway.On the Stage.The New Deal facilitated African Americans’ participation on the stage through the Federal Theater Project, in which 851 actors participated in 75 (segregated) plays in 16 cities. But it was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that led to an explosion of black theater. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named it the best play of 1959. The French playwright Jean Genet's The Blacks opened in New York in 1961 and featured the young actors Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, and Maya Angelou, all of whom went on to have distinguished careers, Angelou as a poet. Jones was the first African American to win a Tony Award for best actor, for The Great White Hope in 1969. He won a second for Fences in 1987, written by August Wilson, one of the most prolific and best black playwrights, who won two Pulitzer prizes.The African American Ellen Stewart founded La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Theatre Club) in 1961 as a nonprofit, Off-Off-Broadway company. In 1965 LeRoi Jones (later Imamu Amiri Baraka) founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, in which audiences were drawn into plays and plays were taken into the streets. Of numerous black theater companies founded in the 1960s, the Negro Ensemble Company was the largest, performing more than a hundred plays by distinguished black writers.African American dance, like the theater, also flourished in the 1930s, late 1950s, and early 1960s. The West African Asadata Dafora's ballet Kyunkor (1934) was the first serious black dance performance to achieve critical acclaim, and in 1937 Katherine Dunham founded her dance company the Negro Dance Troupe—in 1931 she had founded the troupe Ballet Nègre, and the Negro Dance Troupe was later called the Katherine Dunham Company—which toured the United States and Europe for three decades. Pearl Primus, who traveled frequently to Africa to incorporate African styles into her choreography, began another important company with a school in New Rochelle, New York.But the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, founded in 1958, has performed more ballets choreographed by African Americans—more than 150 before 1988—and employed more dancers than any other. The Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, performed classical and modern ballets by white composers, as well as pieces prepared for itself. Numerous black dance companies, such as those founded by Cleo Parker Robinson in Denver, Colorado, by Jeraldyne Blunden in Dayton, Ohio, by Ann Williams in Dallas, Texas, and by Lula Washington and Debbie Allen in the Los Angeles area, now are found throughout the United States.In opera and classical music, too, progress accompanied the civil rights movement. Beginning with Leontyne Price's spectacular debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961, African Americans have appeared regularly with the finest companies. Among the finest singers of the second half of the twentieth century have been the sopranos Martina Arroyo, Reri Grist, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle; the mezzos Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry; the tenors George Shirley and Vinson Cole; and the baritones William Warfield and Willard White. However, few blacks have conducted orchestras; James DePreist, Marian Anderson's nephew, is one of the few, directing the symphony in Portland, Oregon, from 1980.Musical theater has been an especially distinguished field of endeavor of African Americans. Besides the 1921 Shuffle Along, two of the most successful all-black-cast musicals of the early twentieth century were Porgy and Bess (1935) and Carmen Jones (1943), both of which resembled operas more than they did the traditional musical. The 1960s began a golden age for this genre. The actors Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr. and the singer-dancer Lola Falana all starred in Golden Boy (1964) on Broadway. Hallelujah Baby (1967), the musical story of twentieth-century black history, won five Tony Awards, including best actor and actress for Robert Hooks and Leslie Uggams. Other extremely popular all-black-cast musicals were The Wiz (1975), based on The Wizard of Oz; Ain't Misbehavin’ (1978), the story of pianist Fats Waller; and Dreamgirls (1981; revived on film in 2006 starring Beyoncé Knowles).Black comedians have been especially successful in appealing to both black and white audiences. Moms Mabley sang, danced, and dressed up like an elderly woman for several early decades of the twentieth century. Redd Foxx, later the star of the 1970s television show Sanford and Son, was especially noted for his acerbic comments on politics and social injustice. Flip Wilson was in the 1970s the first black with his own variety show since Nat King Cole and was famous for retelling history from a black point of view. Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor continued in his tradition. Beginning in the 1980s Eddie Murphy became not only one of the nation's most popular comedians, but also the star of numerous comic films including Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America, The Nutty Professor, and Dr. Doolittle. His female counterpart has been Whoopi Goldberg, who besides stand-up comedy and film turned in a magnificent dramatic performance in The Color Purple (1985), a study of the sufferings and survival of rural southern black women based on the 1983 novel by Alice Walker; the film also brought Oprah Winfrey to wider public attention. Bernie Mac, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harvey, Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, and the Wayans brothers are among the many African American comedians enjoying huge success both live and in films in the early twenty-first century.Films and Television.American films about African Americans such as D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), a significant work of art but a defense of southern atrocities against blacks, and The Jazz Singer (1927), with a Jew, Al Jolson, playing a minstrel singer, did not employ African American actors in major roles. Still, from 1919 the African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux produced many notable films, and in 1933 Paul Robeson starred in a film version of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, which he had also starred in on stage. In general, though, until the 1940s films with African American characters used demeaning stereotypes to depict them. There were a few exceptions in the 1930s: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson taught the young Shirley Temple how to tap dance and appeared in films beside her as a nonthreatening, cheerful figure. In 1939 the black actress Hattie McDaniel received an Oscar for best supporting actress in the epic Gone with the Wind. Although most of the blacks in this film are either staunchly loyal to their masters or simpleminded comic figures, McDaniel elevated the stereotypical “Mammy” into the powerful moral center of a cast of characters who are either weak or unscrupulous. Unfortunately she received no other comparable roles, nor did the talented Louise Beavers: they played “mammy” over and over again.Pressure from the NAACP and the need to keep black servicemen motivated led to a series of government films, beginning in World War II, in which the traditional film portraits of African Americans changed. Not until 1963, when the civil rights movement was at its height, did another black actor, Sidney Poitier, receive an Oscar, for best actor for Lilies of the Field. Poitier's career consisted largely of playing black men who stood up for themselves among prejudiced people.Not all black films portrayed dignified and reasonably plausible characters. Resembling low-grade versions of the James Bond action-adventure movies popular at the time, the so-called blaxploitation films of the 1970s, notably the Shaft films directed by Gordon Parks Sr. and starring Richard Roundtree, featured tough-talking macho agents who killed people and chased cars, all the while being worshipped by attractive but brainless women.Fortunately, films stressing black achievement and struggles proved more enduring. In Lady Sings the Blues (1972) the Supremes lead singer Diana Ross magnificently portrayed the troubled singer Billie Holiday; in 2005 Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray. Spike Lee, a graduate of the New York University film school, has offered a series of powerful films largely portraying the lives of ordinary urban black people both sympathetically and critically, in addition to a film starring Denzel Washington on the life of Malcolm X (1992). Glory (1989) was an outstanding film on the triumphs and tragedies of black soldiers in the Civil War. Both Washington and Morgan Freeman, two of the twenty-first century's outstanding actors, appeared in Glory. In 2002, Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars for best actor (Training Day) and actress (Monster's Ball), signifying the integration of black actors into mainstream pictures.Performers. Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines, photographed for the film Tap (1989), directed by Nick Castle. TriStar Pictures/PhotofestTelevision programs with black actors were slow to come to television. Two comedies, Ethel Waters's show Beulah (from 1950) and the television version of Amos 'n’ Andy (from 1951), starring the black actors Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams, and Tim Moore, were both forced off the air in 1953 after continuing protests by the NAACP and other groups over the demeaning stereotypes they portrayed. Amos ’n’ Andy continued to be shown in syndication, however, until 1966. Bill Cosby (in the 1965–1968 version of I Spy) and Diahann Carroll as Julia (1968–1971) were the first two African American dramatic leads on television: Cosby played a secret agent dedicated completely to his country, and Carroll played a morally pure, economically comfortable, innocuous woman—both roles suggesting alternative paths for blacks, many of whom had militantly opposed the Vietnam War and lost patience with the gradual, integrationist approach to obtaining equality.In the 1970s a few comedies about African American life—Sanford and Son, Good Times, What's Happening!!, and That's My Mama—were funny and also treated African Americans as real human beings. Racial issues were sometimes brought up (especially on Good Times) but were generally downplayed, although economic hardship was not. The Cosby Show (1984–1992) was the first black show to be one of the most popular on television; its pleasant depiction of a middle-class family during the Reagan/Bush years explains why. The miniseries Roots (1977), the story of how the author Alex Haley's family of free Africans became southern slaves, was the most popular miniseries of all time, with more than 130 million viewers, or more than half the nation's population. It is periodically replayed on cable channels.With the advent of cable television, Robert L. Johnson founded BET (Black Entertainment Television) in 1980. It features a variety of black-themed shows, from comedies to dramas, documentaries to news. In 2000 Johnson sold his vastly profitable holding to Viacom, but the switch from black ownership does not seem to have made a difference. Blacks have also been prominent as talk show hosts, including Montel Williams, Arsenio Hall, and Oprah Winfrey, who is perhaps the most popular woman in the United States and the richest woman in the world.Rap and Hip Hop.Aside from jazz and blues, rap and the closely related hip hop were the most popular forms of African American music in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Emerging in New York City in the 1970s and relying heavily on African and West Indian or reggae music for inspiration, these styles feature insistent, repetitive two-line rhythms with aggressive and often obscene critiques of the dominant society. The violence inherent in the music and lyrics has been reflected in the real-life murders of the artists Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. and in the arrests and convictions of others for violent crimes and drug use.Regardless of the genre or period, African American entertainment has always dealt with racial and economic issues to an extent that mainstream white entertainment has not. From the stereotypes of happy and simpleminded or, alternatively, conniving, dangerous, and sexually predatory blacks through the emergence of black artists and musicians as national figures in the 1930s to the integration of black performers into the mainstream of music, film, and theater by the twenty-first century, the linkage of black entertainment to the issues faced by black Americans has been inseparable. This has made for powerful, and humorous, socially relevant art and many outstanding role models, but at the same time has sometimes made it difficult for African Americans to succeed when dealing with themes that have a socially neutral context.

Reference Entry.  3897 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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