001: “In Dahomey”, London – 1903

In Dahomey opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London on 16 May 1903. Reviews included “a welcome sensation of surprise” Daily Mail 18 May; “the large class of Londoners who are fond of musical comedy will find a new sensation in the piece produced on Saturday” The Times 18 May; “the evening’s entertainment was a thoroughly attractive one” St. James’s Gazette 18 May; and the Globe said it “is well worth seeing – once. We are not sure that a second visit to it is to be recommended to anybody with nerves. For it is a noisy entertainment” (18 May).

The stars were comedian-dancers George Walker and Bert Williams but the other dancers and singers were praised, although – despite the explanation of the plot in the programme (see below) – as The Times said, it was an example of plotless drama. The show ran until Christmas when the theatre was closed for redecoration: it toured to Scotland in mid-1904.

Audiences expected the 1890s cakewalk dance and the management added it in mid-June. The show set a standard for black dance/song/acting that lasted into the 1920s when the jazz-influenced shows from New York were brought to London. Many black entertainers claimed to have been in the 1903 show, for a truncated version had been presented to the king at Buckingham Palace on 27 June, a mark of honour absent from the U.S.A.

The original troupe left England in mid-1904, but other Americans arrived and took In Dahomey round British theatres. In Oldham in September 1904 it was reported that the Revd James Boswell officiated at the marriage of two who had met in the show – the ceremony was on stage, during the performance at the Empire Theatre – but that must have been a stunt as marriages could only be sworn at registered locations and theatres were not included.

Eric Ledell Smith’s biography of Williams (McFarland, North Carolina: 1992) deserves a wide audience.

programme mid-June 1903
programme mid-June 1903

The programme reproduced in Allen Woll Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls, Louisiana State University, 1989 and Da Capo, 1991, page 41 reveals that the cakewalk now ended the show, and that the acts had been rescheduled.

Pages expanding this theme include
049 Eugene McAdoo’s singers
074 Uncle Tom’s Cabin
075 Horace Weston, banjo maestro
120 Black prima donnas
137 Minstrel shows in Britain


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