Minstrel shows are a fraught topic in the history of American musical theater, American race relations, and Trenton’s music history. In his book, Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community, 1890-1965, historian Jack Washington wrote that the black community was pained by the popularity of blackface minstrelsy :
The 1890s saw a renaissance in minstrel companies across the city. White men in blackface danced across the stage in great form mimicking and making fun of the black man. While this fun was considered light-hearted and harmless, two messages were sent. The message to the White community was clear – never trust the Black man. The message to the Black community was one which suggested a simple-minded people who would always be inferior. Minstrel shows fermented the local prejudices of the White community and dashed the hopes and aspirations of the black community. (p. 12)
Washington notes, however, that there was great excitement when blackface performers Bert Williams and George Walker appeared at the Taylor Opera House in 1902. As he documented in his book, In Search of a Community’s Past, black Trentonians showed up in force for when the popular vaudevillians brought their show “In Dahomey” to town, leading to astonished commentary by the local newspaper reporters who covered the performance. Dahomey had its Broadway and London debuts in 1903. In Dahomey has been recognized as the first African American musical to open on Broadway. This article offers background on its storyline and production.