African American Representation in Show Boat

1953 words 8 pages
The evolution of musical theater in America can be viewed through many lenses. Through the lens of hindsight, it is easy to reflect on the treatment and portrayal of African-Americans in the contextual fruition of live entertainment in the United States. Dating back to the later half to the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, ethnic representation in musical theater underwent a gradual change paralleling a shift in societal opinion toward racial equality. Though by today’s standards, its depiction of African-Americans may seem archaic at best, Show Boat changed the way audiences viewed musical theater through its success as the first show to deal with racial issues in the United States. In order to fully understand the …show more content…

According to Olivia Shultz, author of “Black Musicals in the Golden Age of American Theatre,” “The tumultuous lives of the white leading characters in the musical stand as a direct contrast to the enduring attitude of the black characters who can always be relied on.”8 “Ol’ Man River,” even in its opening verse, highlights the racial issues attributed to the show’s theme. “What does he care if de world’s got troubles? What does he care if de land ain’t free?” As sung by an African-American, these lyrics far from try to hide their message. Even the difference in dialogue indicates the genesis of the song’s origin. Axtell highlights another of Todd Decker’s conclusions when examining his discovery of the “uncanny resemblance between the Depp River number ‘De Old Clay Road’ and ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Similarities of form, content, and function between the two songs, and Kern’s admission that he had been sharply attuned to trends in black musical theater around the time he had begun to work on Show Boat, lead inexorably…to the source of ‘Ol’ Man River.’”9 As the song continues, it becomes even more apparent that “Ol’ Man River” is less about the actual Mississippi River, and more about the lives of African-Americans at the time. “You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain, body all achin’ and racked wid pain, tote dat barge, lift dat bale, you git a little drunk an’ you land in jail,” as well as “colored folks work on de Mississippi, colored folks work


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