Black actors, directors, composers, lyricists, playwrights, designers, and producers have long played a role in the American Theater despite the inherent racism on The Great White Way. From the start in the minstrel shows of the 19th century, Black artists have suffered underrepresentation both on and off stage in America. Modern Black theater on Broadway begins with the legendary Shuffle Along, a Black musical that literally set the template for Black musical comedies for a decade, and while Hirschfeld had yet to draw the theater when the show premiered in 1921, his first drawing of Black performers ever was of Miller and Lyles, the stars and book writers of Shuffle Along. Over the next nine decades, Hirschfeld would often draw Black theater makers in comedies, musicals, dramas, and revues. In fact, his first and last theater posters, covering more than 50 productions over sixty years were of Black performers.
The title of this exhibition comes from the musical of the same name that explored the racial injustices of the 20th century South Africa apartheid system. But it can also serve as a metaphor of the Black creative in a predominantly white theater world. Too often the contributions of Black artists have been minimized or co-opted, and the Al Hirschfeld Foundation wants to celebrate many of the Black stars in all disciplines that make the American Theater what it is today. In this online exhibition, we present 26 images from over 72 years, but there are many, many more. This will be the first of multiple exhibitions that will explore Black theater, film, dance, and music over the next year. We believe that BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK ART MATTERS. And BLACK THEATRE MATTERS.
We recognize that some drawings could be found offensive. Hirschfeld’s work is generally described as caricature, but the label is limiting. His art is not pejorative. His intent was not to poke fun at his subjects or perpetuate stereotypes, but rather it was a distillation and celebration of the performance. Exaggeration is used for emphasis so that the drawings, as one fellow artist said of Hirschfeld’s work, look more like the person than the person does.
Special thanks to Jon Luini and Chime Interactive; Todd Johnson, Jonathan Higginbotham, Keith Sherman, and Katherine Eastman.