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The Black Broadway voice: calls and responses

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Black musical theatre artists in New York City share and theorize their experiences with industry expectations around racialized vocal performance. Musical director John Bronson, actor/singer Jamal James, composer/music director Dionne McClain-Freeney, composer/writer Khiyon Hursey, actor/singer Rheaume Crenshaw, actor/singer/voice teacher Elijah Caldwell, and actor/singer Zonya Love Johnson comprise the group. The artists grapple with the conundrum of sounding ‘Black enough’, how the demand for uniform Black vocalization confounds historical accuracy in period shows, and the fantasy of the generic, idealized ‘Black Broadway voice’. The group details unspoken, misguided industry assumptions that Black singers do not produce multiple kinds of belt sounds, do not use the vocal mix sound, and sing only in a heavy (power) sound virtuosically ornamented with riffs that evokes for (white) listeners a misleadingly monolithic idea of ‘the Black church’. As these artists point out, ‘We do not all go to the same church’; in fact, the ability to fluidly move between more classical (legit) and gospel vocal sounds may actually arise from a singer’s training in the church choir. Collectively these artists have worked on multiple Broadway and off-Broadway shows from The Color Purple to Hamilton and A Strange Loop, major tours and regional productions of shows such as Hair, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Waitress, and hold songwriting credits from the prestigious BMI musical theatre writing workshop to Netflix. This conversation took place in October 2019.

Keywords: African American actors; African American singers; belting; casting; musicals; show tunes; theatre; vocal sound

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 0000000417624194Northwestern University

Publication date: December 1, 2020

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UA-1313315-26