In Dahomey in England: A (negative) transatlantic performance heritage

Saxon, Theresa orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-2129-2570 (2015) In Dahomey in England: A (negative) transatlantic performance heritage. Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, 13 (2). pp. 265-281. ISSN 1478-8810

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The first all-black American musical comedy on Broadway, In Dahomey (1902-1905), has made a name for itself in America’s theatre annals and in the history of black American performance. Although critics have written about the relevance of the show in America, investigations into this turn-of-the-century performance in its wider transatlantic context have lagged behind. This article examines the reception of In Dahomey in England through specifically British interpretations of race, This article examines the reception of In Dahomey in England through specifically British interpretations of race as a negotiation of blackness, across a spectrum of racialization encoded by the pervasively prevalent minstrel/song and dance show from America and, also, the impact of African colonisation. Thus I will situate the reception of In Dahomey in London as informed by multivalent sets of racial discourses incorporating the heritage of minstrelized stagings of race and the British colonial political and cultural machinery engaged in the production and negotiation of a set of racialized imaginaries for and of Africa and the African. British audiences did not see race in the same way as American audiences but, I argue, they were as driven by racializing strategies. The transatlantic racial narrative in England produced a series of discordant images across a matrix of blackness, negotiating slippage between black American and African. But, ultimately, as Gilroy argues, the “dislocating dazzle of whiteness,” effectively sought to affirm race (white/non-white) as the ultimate marker of difference, dislodging other forms of cultural plurality in establishing an apparently unassailable racial narrative. Thus, race, as racial difference, was the primary, almost exclusive, subject of scrutiny in the press reviews of In Dahomey. Despite claims made in the press of a brotherhood between black performers and white audiences in England, In Dahomey was categorized by reviewers as a form of minstrelized song and dance show entangled in a racialized hierarchy. This article argues that though In Dahomey was formulated with an uplift agenda, to challenge, subtly, racial prejudice, the show’s potential resistance to racialized stereotyping was, ultimately, eroded in England’s auditoria.

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