While Collins has his happy moments, his not naive, nor constantly happy; he is far from a comedic character. Facing muggers, corrupt police, and the loss of a loved one, Collins experiences anger, fear, and grief. Able to feel negative emotions, Collins constructs a kind of complexity of feeling present in blackness that was not there before; these emotions are humanizing, allowing blackness to be represented as human, rather than a caricature. After Collins is mugged, he breaks the always happy stereotype by demonstrating his anger, yelling after the muggers who stole his coat: “well you missed a sleeve” (Larson). As he yells, Collins stands tall and waves the coat sleeve to demonstrate his anger. This anger adds the first layer to Collins as a person, as it shows in one of his first interactions with the audience. Later in the show, as police intimidate people on the street, singing, “I’m dreaming of a white, right, Christmas,” Collins visibly cowers. Not only does this moment demonstrate Collins’ depth as a character, but also offers a critique of American policing and police brutality as the two cops bang their billy clubs threateningly against trash can lids. While Collins’ anger and fear lend to the depth of his character that fights the stereotype, it is his embodied grief, in parallel with his happiness, that establishes him as the new construction of blackness in entertainment. Throughout the show, Collins’ spot of brightness is his lover, Angel. With Angel, a burden is lifted, and he allows himself to be happy. As the two men fall in love in the song “I’ll Cover You,” Collins can be seen constantly smiling and dancing along with Angel’s antics. In stark contrast to this effervescent happiness is the gripping grief Collins experiences when Angel passes away. In the song “I’ll Cover You (Reprise),” Collins eulogizes Angel, singing the song they once sang together, in happiness, by himself, in grief. Collins performs the song almost as if he is wailing, before falling to his knees and being unable to go on. Collins eulogy in “I’ll Cover You Reprise” is one of the most deeply emotional points of the show. For it to be performed by a black man emphasizes Collins’ complexity of character and emotional importance, allowing Collins to construct a transcendent, humanized version of the black caricature.
Collins grasps his chest as he wails the high notes of "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" (Credit: Stagedoor Manor)
Established as a hardworking, intellectual, emotional character, Collins bucks off the caricature stereotypes of minstrel shows to create a new representation of blackness in American entertainment. His hard work empowering him, his intelligence elevating him, and his emotions humanizing him, Collins provides a new benchmark for blackness not just in entertainment, but in the overarching conceptual construction of blackness in America. Even in today’s society, 25 years later, where new images of politicians in blackface come up frequently, RENT—Tom Collins in particular—serves as a vehicle to bring discourse of what blackness can be into the American consciousness. This discourse, vital to the continuation of diversity in America, produces the ultimate meaning of blackness through its language (Hall). It is important to note that the reconstruction of blackness occurs not through Collins himself, but the discourse he motivates; as Stuart Hall posits, creating a positive stereotype is not enough to overcome a negative one (Hall). Through Collins, Larson did not completely reconstruct blackness. Instead, he began discourse of the role of blackness, and more broadly race, in musicals that paved the way for the creation of musicals such as The Color Purple, and the colorful casting of incredibly popular shows such as Hamilton and Hadestown. As blackness in musicals becomes more mainstream, the discourse surrounding it continues to grow, and blackness continues to be reconstructed.
Collins collapses to his knees at the culmination of "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" (Credit: Stagedoor Manor)
Ultimately, Collins position in the show allows his audience to engage in the uncomfortable conversation of confronting their own prejudice, and that of the those around them. Though the original construction of blackness and race in America flattened a complex topic into inadequate stereotypes that lasted many years, Collins’ embodied reconstruction of blackness as one of complexity, depth, and balance, serves to guide the discourse of blackness inside the overarching performance of America, even for years to come.
“Ch1: Representation, Meaning, & Language.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, by Stuart Hall, Sage, 2013, pp. 1–47.
Grosvenor, Edwin S. “Blackface: The Sad History of Minstrel Shows.” American Heritage, 2019, www.americanheritage.com/blackface-sad-history-minstrel-shows.
Larson, Jonathan. “RENT.” 1994, New York, New York Theater Workshop.
“Racial Formation.” Racial Formation in the United States, by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Routledge, 2015, pp. 13–14.