- Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture of Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater
Paula Marie Seniors's study of the black musical theater team of Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing, traces the production, reception, and significance of two often neglected black-cast musicals. The first, Shoo Fly Regiment (1906-1908), is set at an educational institution that strongly resembles the Tuskegee Institute; the story revolves around black soldiers who fight in the Spanish-American War. The second, The Red Moon (1908-1910), takes historical inspiration from the Hampton Institute, where both black and Native American students were educated; the plot follows the love interests of the character Minnehaha, famously played by Abbie Mitchell. Gesturing to the elder Johnson's most famous musical contribution in the title of her book, Seniors explores the team's attempts to transform stage representations of African American life in accordance with an uplift model that emphasized middle-class respectability, education, and marriage.
Recent books by Camille Forbes, Daphne Brooks, and David Krasner have shed new light on the accomplishments and complexities of early twentieth-century African American theatrical performance, mostly by exploring another famous team of the period, Bert Williams and George Walker. But Seniors reminds us that Williams and Walker did not act in a vacuum, and shines a light on another team's efforts to reform black theatrical representation. Setting the theatrical activities of the Cole and Johnson team against the backdrop of W. E. B. Du Bois's debates with Booker T. Washington, Seniors urges her readers to see these two intellectuals as more aligned than opposed. While this argument often glosses over significant differences between the two men's positions, it is most successful when it demonstrates that the strategies each promoted for black advancement were often not irreconcilable in practice. By demonstrating Bob Cole's oscillation between Washingtonian "accomodationism" and Du Boisian activism, Seniors reminds her readers that historical actors rarely operate according to such unambiguous distinctions. In fact, one of the more interesting claims of the book is between the lines, explicitly stated only in a footnote: [End Page 755] years before Du Bois's "Criteria of Negro Art" and other writings in Crisis that dealt explicitly with representations of black life, Cole and the Johnsons were navigating these issues as they faced the practical challenges of creating an evening of all-black musical theater for both black and white audiences.
In her introduction, Seniors responds to (here unnamed) scholars who have criticized Cole and the Johnson brothers for their conservatism, and for their compromised inclusion of blackface minstrelsy types, even as they tried to move away from the minstrelsy form. Seniors walks a delicate line here: while acknowledging the problematic stereotypes deployed for comic relief, she focuses instead on the musicals' celebration of education, marriage, the respectability of black women, and the promotion of interracial and interethnic solidarity and anti-imperialism. In her analysis of Shoo Fly Regiment, Seniors showcases the progressive strategies at work in the musical. By portraying the heroism of black soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War, she argues that Cole and Johnson not only recuperated positive images of black masculinity and physical power (noting also that Jack Johnson was doing in another arena), but also intervened in a contemporary debate about the U. S. military's refusal to promote black soldiers to officers' ranks. While Seniors acknowledges the play's incorporation of theatrical traditions inherited from minstrelsy and vaudeville, she aims to demonstrate that the spectacles of black patriotism showcased in Shoo Fly Regiment were direct refutations of Theodore Roosevelt's "Rough Rider," white-supremacist, imperialist mentality. By suggesting the possibility of coalitions among people of color the world over, Shoo Fly Regiment staged a direct critique of both racist and imperialist projects steered by the United States.
While Shoo Fly Regiment advocated transnational alliances of people of color, The Red Moon turned to the...