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A CurtainUp Review
In Dahomey

by David Lipfert

Where Is Dahomey?
Background Notes
Although musicals featuring Black entertainers had been around for a while, In Dahomey was the first to reach a major Broadway theater in 1903. New Federal Theatre commemorates this milestone with a charming production at the cozy Harry de Jur Playhouse. The animated cast is headed by opera diva Shirley Verrett. Will Marion Cook's very listenable original score utilizes the then-popular ragtime melodies with syncopated accompaniment; but apart from the music, this is a substantially updated version.

Director Shauneille Perry has almost completely rewritten the book to conform to today's politically correct standards, replacing the original racial jokes with feminist ones and substantially streamlining the plot. What would have been a large improvised component for the dialogue is also gone. Choreographer Chiquita Ross Glover has added an athletic component to the featured dance made famous in Black musicals, the Cakewalk . Taken on its own terms, the production is entertaining and certainly worth a visit for anyone interested in earlier musicals. A plus for purists is that the soloists sing without amplification.

Perry's plot has Dahomian Prince Akanji (Kim Sullivan) wandering into the Gatorville, Florida, post office lobby where a rehearsal for a musical to benefit the African Preservation Society is in full swing. He is searching for two famous detectives that can accompany him to Africa to get the royal necklace back from his conniving cousin Mutu. Settling for Rareback Pinkerton (Keith Lee Grant) and Shylock Homestead (Brian Chandler), Akanji brings them to just outside his village in Dahomey.

Scared out of their wits, the detective duo is soon found by natives Mandisa (Trina Parks) and her daughter Aduke (Tanya Alexander) along with Henri (Charles Reese), who promptly bring in King Menuki (Cedric D. Cannon) and Queen Ayat (Shirley Verrett). Rareback and Shylock are stupefied at the uncanny resemblance between these people and their friends back in America (naturally played by the same performers). Rareback has no trouble chumming up to Princess Assadou (LaTrice Verrett), a double ringer for Rosetta Lightfoot back home-not that he would want to steal his partner's sweetheart! After some tricky maneuvers, crafty Mutu (again Kim Sullivan) will now have to share Dahomey's throne with Akanji when that time comes. Not a moment too soon, Assadou warns the detectives to clear out.

Back home in Florida they show off their costly reward from the Prince. Shylock is now rich enough to marry Rosetta (again LaTrice Verrett) with the blessing of her parents Hamilton and Cecelia Lightfoot (Cedric D. Cannon and Shirley Verrett). The cast join together for one last Cakewalk.

Apart from the royal couple, Shirley Verrett and Cedric D. Cannon, most in the cast are dancer-singers who put on a good presentation despite less-developed acting skills. Trina Parks shows off a nifty exotic dance for the two American visitors in Act II. That is also when Charles Reese (Henri) and Lucio Fernandez (Singh) come into their own.

The hit song "My Dahomey Queen" is lovingly sung by Menuki to Shirley Verrett's "Ayat." She in turn dignifies no fewer than four feature numbers with burnished tones. Act I "Cecelia's Lament" is particularly moving. As the post office manager, Jim Jacobson is a likeable Irish ham. Playing the Lightfoots' daughter Rosetta and Princess Assadou, LaTrice Verrett tries a bit too hard to be noticed. She is evidently more comfortable as a Gospel belter than in the more restrained turn-of-century singing style. Chiquita Ross Glover's balletic steps in Act I make her look awkward, undoing the effect of Evelyn Nelson's attractive costuming. Robert Joel Schwartz's set works well enough, but Shirley Pendergast's lighting leaves much to be desired.

While it is understandable that Shauneille Perry would want to eliminate dated references to Blacks that we find offensive today, the fact that he rewrote the entire book betrays his lack of trust in the 1903 original. Even in this version, the story line makes the most sense as a farce, but Perry tries effortfully to turn it into a believable plot. His direction of the Act II repartee between detectives Shylock and Rareback lacked punch. Luckily seasoned performers Cannon and Shirley Verrett save the day by lending class to the production.

It should be said that the new text harmonizes well with the song lyrics. Chiquita Ross Glover's take on the Cakewalk does not appear to fit the description of this popular ballroom dance done in a square. At other moments, she slips in jazz and other contemporary styles, taking away period feel. Douglas Kostner phrases the toe-tapping overture with exceptional sensitivity on the piano; he carefully underscores the singers as conductor of the offstage ensemble, whose sound is piped in to the auditorium.

A near-capacity audience enthusiastically greeted the cast at the end of the show.



IN DAHOMEY
Written and Directed by Shauneille Perry
Inspired by the characters of Jesse A. Shipp
Music by Will Marion Cook
With Shirley Verrett, Tanya Alexander, Cedric D. Cannon, Brian E. Chandler, Lucio Fernandez, Keith Lee Grant, Jim Jacobson, Trina Parks, Charles Reese, Kim Sullivan and LaTrice Verrett
Musical Director: Julius P. Williams
Choreographer: Chiquita Ross Glover
Musical Arranger: Tom Snowden
Set Designer: Robert Joel Schwartz
Lighting Designer: Shirley Pendergast
Costume Designer: Evelyn Nelson
Sound Designer: Tim Schellenbaum
Conductor and Pianist: Douglas Kostner
Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission.
Produced by New Federal Theatre
Harry de Jur Playhouse
Henry Street Settlement/Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (212) 353-1176 or (212) 279-4200
Opened June 27, 1999 closing July 25
Seen June 27, 1999 and reviewed by David Lipfert


Where Is Dahomey
In the musical Rareback Pinkerton and Shylock Homestead set out by boat for Dahomey. This would have been the heavily-forested lower portion of today's Niger, just west of the much larger Nigeria in West Africa. The Kingdom of Dahomey had already seen its heyday by 1903, and the detective pair would have found a French-occupied colony when they arrived. Dahomey had been the rival to the Kingdom of Benin, (located in present-day Nigeria) which produced the magnificent wooden sculpture we admire so much today. This was also a prime area for the transshipment of slaves arriving from the interior and destined principally for the Caribbean and Brazil. Seen June 27, 1999 and reviewed by David Lipfert ęCopyright June 1999


Background Notes
A century before The Wiz, all-Black musicals were the rage in New York. These musical entertainments evolved from post-Emancipation minstrel shows and soon became popular among the White theater goers. As still happens today, plots and the characters' speech conformed to the audience's expectations. Stereotypes and Black 'dialect' abounded, yet many important trends initially appearing in these musicals were subsequently incorporated into standard White musical theater. Some important firsts are ragtime music on the piano starting in the 1890s and a popular ballroom dance, the Cakewalk. The familiar Porgy and Bess is a later example of the Black musical incorporating both dialect and an innovative use of jazz idiom.

As the first all-Black musical on Broadway, In Dahomey received a great deal of attention at its opening on February 18th, 1903, at the New York Theater, located at 44th Street and Broadway. The main attraction was the legendary comic duo of light-skinned Bahamian Bert A. Williams and Kansas-born George W. Walker. the lengthy spoken scene. At the beginning Act II of the current production, for Rareback Pinkerton and Shylock Homestead give an idea of their hilarious improvised dialogue. The show also was the first to introduce a specifically African theme into this genre. Among the most important characteristics of the turn-of-century Black musical were: improvisation, fast-changing scenery using tableau (presumably painted backdrops), much pantomime and interpolation of songs from other musicals.

The Broadway production ended after a moderately-successful run of 53 nights. Next came a tour to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, where English audiences could satisfy their fascination with American Black performers. After Edward VII ordered a Command Performance, the production extended its run to a full seven months. In her off-stage moments, Aida Overton Walker, the first Rosetta and wife to George W. Walker, could be found teaching the Cakewalk to titled aristocracy. After touring the English North and Scotland, the company then performed in Paris. Upon returning to the U.S., a tour took the production across the country.

The plot of the original is reported differently in the sources, but all agree that there were three locales: Boston, Gatorville (Florida) and Dahomey. There were many more secondary characters than the Harry de Jur stage would comfortably hold, and the royal necklace in the current version becomes a missing silver box with a characteristic design on the outside. Smooth talker Rareback Pinkerton is sent from Boston to Gatorville to persuade rich dimwit Shylock Homestead to contribute to a fund for the recolonization of Africa by oppressed Negroes. Up to now Shylock's work experience has consisted of beating a drum for the Salvation Army; but unbeknownst to him, he has inherited a substantial fortune. Hamilton Lightfoot becomes president of the colonization society, and there is much discussion about the pros and cons of this initiative (probably a hot political topic in 1903). In a two-act version there is a prologue set in Dahomey, and Shylock finally bypasses Rareback to leave the remainder of his fortune to the people of Dahomey. A three-act version puts the final act in Dahomey along with the familiar songs "My Dahomey Queen" and "A Rich Coon's Babe" ("Brown Skin Baby of Mine" in the current version). It seems strange that musical director Julius P. Williams did not use "On Broadway in Dahomey."


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© Elyse Sommer, June 1999