Before the late 1890s, the image portrayed of African-Americans on Broadway was a "secondhand vision of black life created by European-American performers." Stereotyped "coon songs" were popular, and blackface was common.
Will Marion Cook and Bob Cole brought black-written musical comedy to Broadway in 1898. Cook's Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk, an hour-long sketch that was the first all-black show to play in a prestigious Broadway house, Casino Theatre's Roof Garden. Cole's A Trip to Coontown was the first full-length New York musical comedy written, directed and performed exclusively by blacks. The approach of the two composers were diametrically opposed: Cole believed that African Americans should try to compete with European Americans by proving their ability to act similarly on- and offstage, while Cook thought African Americans should not imitate European Americans but instead create their own style.
Bob Cole and brothers John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson focused on elevating the lyrical sophistication of African American songs. Their first collaboration was "Louisiana Lize", a love song written in a new lyrical style that left out the watermelons, razors, and "hot mamas" typical of earlier "coon songs."
Cole and the Johnson brothers went on to create musicals such as The Belle of Bridgeport, The Red Moon (with Joe Jordan), The Shoo-Fly Regiment, In Newport, Humpty Dumpty, and Sally in Our Alley (featuring Bob Cole's "Under The Bamboo Tree"). Bob Cole's suicide in 1911 ended "one of the promising musical comedy teams yet seen on Broadway".
Bert Williams and George Walker, called the "Two Real Coons", found fame in 1896 with a musical farce called The Gold Bug. The duo's performance of the cakewalk captured the audience's attention, and they soon became so closely associated with this dance that many people think of them as its originators. Williams met Walker in San Francisco in 1893, while they played Dahomeyans in an exhibit of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. They played different venues while putting together their act.