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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Employing Africa in the Broadway Musical: Artistic Labors and Contested Meanings of the Racial Body, from 1903 to 2009

  • Author(s): Granger, Brian Cornelius
  • Advisor(s): McMahon, Christina S.
  • et al.

My dissertation looks at representations of Africa throughout Broadway's history in order to explore how these stagings have both supported and challenged racial discrimination, and how they help us reconsider the shared cultural heritage of American musical theater. I investigate how black laboring bodies claimed agency and forged new communities on Broadway stages over ten decades, despite other scholars' notions of Broadway as inherently “white space”. My method combines ethnography, spatial-visual and semiotic analysis to explore how the theatrical black body has re-shaped American social and political imagination through musical stage performances. These performances, in turn, re-circulate in global networks in ways that both challenge and re-affirm the domination of American cultural influences and the “Otherness” of black Africanity within the genre of the musical. Ultimately, I demonstrate that there is a long and continuing tradition within the commercial American theater of utilizing a staged vision of Africa for various ends. As significant as it is to acknowledge the challenging, bold gestures made by a number of Broadway's theater artists, it is also important to show, finally, that the entire trajectory of musical theater has developed in conversation with an African Other and an imagined African space (be it a threatening pagan jungle or prehistoric paradise). No matter how progressive, most musical theater histories to date still affirm black musical theater and artists as an additive, rather than reexamining musical theater history as a conversation about race from its inception. My dissertation intervenes in critical race theory, citizenship studies, musical theater studies and performance studies by showing how Africa-focused musicals function as under-acknowledged and progressive social change vehicles in the United States.

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