In Dahomey -- the first African-American-written musical to play a New York legit theatre, in 1903 -- gets a rare revival (if only in title and songs) beginning June 23 at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City.
Shauneille Perry wrote and directs a new script inspired by characters and songs from the three-act musical comedy that originally starred Bert Williams and George Walker, the famous American black stage stars of the early 20th-century.
Keith Lee Grant (Show Boat and Ragtime tours), Brian Chandler (Timon of Athens on Broadway) and Metropolitan Opera singer Shirley Verrett are featured among Latrice Verrett, Cedric D. Cannon, Trina Parks and Jim Jacobson. Official opening is June 27. Performances continue to July 25.
The musical comedy, now in two acts, includes an assortment of characters in both America and Africa, including a white character and an East Indian character, Perry told Playbill On-Line.
Perry, who directed Williams and Walker at the American Place Theatre in the 1980s, said the show retains flavors of the period (it's still set in 1903), without the offensive references. Although the original show was written by African-Americans, the intended audience was white and the creators gave in to conventions and cultural stereotypes. "They had to buy into those conventions if they wanted to be successful," Perry said.
In the original, Williams starred as Shylock Homestead, who is cheated out of money by his friend, Rareback Pinkerton, played by Walker. Those characters -- and new ones created by Perry -- still appear in Perry's version. "They are bumblers," she said, adding that the show is a musical comedy "with some seriousness."
The show ran 53 performances at the New York Theatre, but had a seven month run in England. African-American performers in the first 60 years of the century were always more warmly embraced by European audiences, Perry said.
Although this In Dahomey's book and concept are new, the original script is apparently extant. The title is a reference to the African nation of Dahomey. Perry said she has not looked at the original script, but used the songlist and characters as a jumping off point.
Now a rich slice of theatre history, In Dahomey was daring and new for its time. It was the first show written and starring African Americans: Jesse Shipp (book), Will Marion Cook, James Weldon Johnson, Alex Rogers and Bert Williams (music) and Paul Laurence Dunbar (lyrics). Musical director Julius P. Williams III and Perry have written additional music and lyrics, respectively, for this new version.
The project began when Woodie King Jr. asked Perry, a professor of theatre and black studies at City University of New York, to put together a revue of songs based on the material. She told him she wanted to write a new book inspired by some of the characters.
Tom Snowden is the musical arranger, Chequita Ross Glover is the choreographer. Designers are Evelyn Nelson (costume), Robert Joel Schwartz (set) and Shirley Prendergast (lighting).
Tickets are $25. The Henry Street Settlement's Harry De Jur Theatre is at 466 Grant Street. For information, call (212) 353-1176.
-- By Kenneth Jones