ATHE Summary & Response Series: “Playing Well with ‘Others'”

Greetings ATDS members and friends. It was wonderful to see some of you at ATHE in Orlando. This year ATDS sponsored (or co-sponsored) 21 sessions, a fantastic preconference, and a preconference cabaret. Many of us also met up at the yearly ATDS membership meeting where we shared news, both happy and sad, and presented awards.


Dorothy Chansky receives the Betty Jean Jones Award.

A few ATHE participants have volunteered to write blog posts summarizing and responding to some of the ATDS sessions in order to extend the conversations and share with those who could not make it. If you would like to write a guest post for the ATDS blog on an ATHE session, please email Lauren Beck at

The first installment in the ATDS at ATHE 2013 series is by Kathryn Edney (Regis College) and Donatella Galella (CUNY Graduate Center).

Session: “Playing Well with ‘Others’: Post-60s Popular Black Musicals
Saturday, 3 August 2013


The idea for our roundtable, “Playing Well with ‘Others’: Post-60s Popular Black Musicals,” was directly linked to the 2013 conference theme and our mutual interest in the ways race and ethnicity intersect with the history of musical theater. We decided from the outset that in order to reach the largest number of people and build a diverse panel of discussants, the roundtable needed to be multidisciplinary and cut across different focus groups of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). Given these goals, we collaborated with the following focus groups: Music Theatre/Dance, Black Theatre Association, and the American Theatre and Drama Society.

We were particularly interested in questioning and discussing definitions of “popular” and “black musical” and the unwritten rules artists, producers, audiences, and critics have had to play by or with when it comes to facilitating and measuring the popularity of such shows. We also had the goal of directly interrogating the roles that scholars play in shaping understandings of black musicals; this seemed of particular relevance given that neither of us are African Americans. The politics of race and representation, and of who gives voice to whom, are issues that we both try to be sensitive to in our work. Our vision, then, was for each panelist to present for a maximum of seven minutes—essentially a position statement—which would hopefully allow enough time for productive discussion concerning the meaning of black musicals and their place within musical theater history.

Summary of Papers

The roundtable itself was a mixture of presentation styles and concerns that opened up, rather than closed off, conversation. The participants presented their work in chronological order of their case studies. Donatella Galella began by analyzing Raisin, the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun, and how the socio-political climate and acts of musicalization made the play’s narrative easier to consume in the early 1970s. Next, Sam O’Connell pontificated on soul music as black music, questioning our tendency to reduce music to the raced bodies of its creators, characters, and performers. Brian Granger reassessed the authority and explicit racism of critics that deemed The Wiz a flop. While Dwayne Mann had intended to consider The Wiz’s color through advertising, design, and audiences, he offered instead a radical self-reflection on what we are doing when we name black musicals, implicating our bodies and identities, particularly during that moment in Florida. Both Ji Hyon (Kayla) Yuh and Laura MacDonald focused on Dreamgirls, the former on what black means in the recent Korean and South African productions, and the latter on how celebrity culture was integral to the musical’s success. Examining discourses about jazz, gospel, and hip hop, Kathryn Edney highlighted the dangers of nostalgia and narrow definitions of producing and consuming black revues in the 1990s. Finally, Christopher Silsby scrutinized the neoliberal erasing of black communists in The Scottsboro Boys.

Summary of Discussion

Prior to ATHE, we brainstormed a series of questions that we knew we wanted to ask after all of the participants had presented their ideas. The biggest concern was how to ensure that our questions were asked in such a way that would not place people on the defensive and shut down productive conversation but which would nonetheless constructively raise the issue of representations of “blackness” by scholars. As it turned out, our panelists had done much of that work for us and laid the groundwork for the discussion.

Much of the discussion revolved around the performativity and legibility of blackness. The Wiz, for instance, became a touchstone for how different people engaged with the musical as black and/or soul and how different productions have cast white actors in the leading roles. In addition, participants brought up the branding of black musicals, Broadway, and New York. When we opened up discussion with the audience, several questions came up about epistemology: how can or should we know and categorize black musicals? What is the impact of the segregation of black musical performance, its scholarship, and its archival materials? Although we did not have concrete answers, we found it productive and generative to begin to ask these questions and to practice self-reflexive sociology as we continue to work in the fields of black musicals, culture, and power.

Questions, Actions, and Moving Forward

-How should we mobilize the term “black musicals” going forward in our scholarship and syllabi?

-Why is the form of the revue so common among popular black musicals? To what extent is the revue a safe format for producing, distributing, and consuming race?

-How do our bodies reify and/or challenge academic paradigms?

-How do we welcome more scholars of color into the field of musical studies? What are the power dynamics involved in such a project?

-Consider the spatial dynamics of where we teach, convene, present, and perform

-Explicitly name white supremacy in our discussions

-Grapple with critical race theory

-Unpack the limits of (neo)liberal multiculturalism

-Triangulate race in musical scholarship; disrupt or reconsider the black-white binary

-Reframe black musicals not only in the United States but also around the globe and relationally/ contextually

-Address how and why black musical scholarship varies from very few case studies to Allen Woll’s single book on the subject Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls, and then “there’s a cliff” that has yet to be fully acknowledged

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