Essay on African American Representation in Show Boat

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The evolution of musical theater in America can be viewed through many lenses. Through the lens of hindsight, it is easy to reflect on the treatment and portrayal of African-Americans in the contextual fruition of live entertainment in the United States. Dating back to the later half to the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, ethnic representation in musical theater underwent a gradual change paralleling a shift in societal opinion toward racial equality. Though by today’s standards, its depiction of African-Americans may seem archaic at best, Show Boat changed the way audiences viewed musical theater through its success as the first show to deal with racial issues in the United States. In order to fully understand the…show more content…
In her doctoral dissertation, Katherine Axtell examines Show Boat from its novel origins to its inception and creation as a work of musical theater. It is clear from her analysis that even though Hammerstein and Kern may not have intended Show Boat to be about race, it was still at the forefront of their minds. Axtell states, “sources…strongly suggest that, page for page and line for line, the composer and librettist expended the greatest energy on the development of material for the romantic leads, Magnolia and Ravenal; that they took inspiration…from contemporary African-American musical theater.”6 Axtell also cites Todd Decker, “who in 2007 included Show Boat in a larger study of ‘black-white encounters’ in selected American stage and film musicals... Decker argues that Kern and Hammerstein concentrated, from the beginning of their collaboration, on the development of interracial encounters and the creation of such numbers as ‘Can’t Help Lovin; Dat Man’ and ‘Ol’ Man River.’”7
It was, in fact, “Ol’ Man River” that many believed to be the highlight of the show. Sung by the African-American character, Joe, “Ol’ Man River” represents the overarching theme of Show Boat. The “river” in the song represents the Mississippi River, but the lyrics
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