The purpose of this study is to outline the origins of African-American men in musical theatre, uncover their contributions to the art form, and explore how their legacy is continued today. I was inspired to do this research because through my undergraduate curriculum I have only narrowly studied African-American men in musical theatre and opera history. Upon realizing the lack of attention to this subject matter, not only in my curriculum but in historical resources, I was inspired to address the need for this research. The courses I have taken included Theatre History 1 and 2 and Musical Theatre History 1 and 2; recognition of African-Americans in the theatrical arts has been discussed at a minimal level. The majority of African-American studies in these classes focus on minstrelsy and its contribution to American musical theatre. Minstrelsy was an American form of entertainment consisting of variety acts, dancing, and music during the early 1900s. The shows were a mockery of African-Americans with white (Sometimes Black) men dressing themselves in clown-like costumes and black face paint to depict a caricature of blacks. Throughout my coursework I have found there is still a presence of Minstrelsy in the framework of American musical theatre today. Understanding how minstrelsy influenced musical theatre led me to research Bert Williams, a pioneer African-American performer both in minstrelsy and American theatre. Bert Williams broke racial barriers, allowing African-Americans to perform alongside whites and gain proper show billing. This not only influenced theatre, but the social temperature of the time as well, as the stereotype of African-Americans in society slowly began to be broken down, and whites having the opportunity to see African-Americans as normal people aided in the seeding and progression of the civil rights movement. To further study the works and life of Bert Williams, I learned and performed his iconic song, "Nobody." The song is a commentary of how Williams is overlooked because he is an African-American man. It talks about how he is expected to be funny and make a mockery of himself at the expense of himself. In researching the historical context and gaining an understanding of the content within the song, I was able to better understand other roles I have played in various musicals. This gave me a different perspective to the subject matter of racism within a show. Furthermore, it allowed me to view the evolution of African-American roles in musical theatre, and how they originated in vaudevillian shows. A subject of which I had never explored within my classes. Williams had a very successful and influential career and became the basis for my research. However, as I began my exploration, I realized there were a vast variety of men of color who either contributed as much, if not more, to the progression of African-American men in musical theatre and opera. Bert Williams, Todd Duncan, and Paul Robeson all forged careers in musical theatre and/or opera. These men aided in presenting African-American men in realistic settings and not as stereotyped caricatures. African-American men in musical theatre and opera are typically overlooked for their contribution to the art forms. However, Bert Williams, Todd Duncan, and Paul Robeson were trailblazers for African-American men in musical theatre and opera; utilizing their status and fame to make political change and fight for equal rights, both on and off stage. Their legacy is seen in the art form through the structure of musical theatre, the content of the musical comedy that led to the musical drama, and through the integration of the African-American performer in both musical theatre and opera. In continuation of their legacy, we see more roles in shows for African-American men and a growing interest in shows with African-Americans. The recent opening and revivals of shows like Porgy and Bess, Motown: The Musical, and Kinky Boots all feature leading African-American men on stage. My duty as a young African-American practitioner of both musical theatre and opera is to continue their legacy through both my studies and performance. I am honored to be a part of their legacy, furthering their contributions, and bringing light to their stories through my research and analysis.


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Thesis Completion





Weaver, Earl


Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.)


College of Arts and Humanities




Arts and Humanities -- Dissertations, Academic; Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Humanities







Access Status

Open Access

Length of Campus-only Access


Document Type

Honors in the Major Thesis