Best known for her performance in the title role of the Broadway play Carmen Jones, singer and actress Muriel Rahn was born in Boston and raised in Tuskegee, Alabama. In college at Atlanta University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Rahn studied music and education. She spent a short time as a public school teacher before devoting herself completely to her career in show business.
Through the course of her career, Rahn developed a reputation as the kind of rare performer who is equally talented as a singer and as an actress. Many of her major operatic roles, including Salome and Aida, allowed her to exercise these dual strengths. Muriel Rahn became the first African-American singer to perform in an opera at Carnegie Hall when, in 1942, she appeared in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. In spite of her great success in operatic performances, Rahn was best known for her concerts and for her performances in many Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
Rahn’s last Broadway appearance was as Cora Lewis in The Barrier, the American opera based on Langston Hughes’s play The Mulatto. Her performance in this role received excellent notices by critics who called her an “admirable singer and actress” and described her performance as “superb.”1 To the role of Cora, Howard Taubman wrote, Rahn brought “a personal dignity and sincerity to the part and her singing is not only accurate and full-blooded, but charged with dramatic cogency.”2
The Barrier’s New York success led to the scheduling of performances in a number of cities. When it was discovered that The Barrier was to play in Baltimore at the Ford Theatre, a theater that insisted on segregated seating of white and black audience members (restricting black viewers to the worst seats in the house), “Muriel Rahn declared that she would sing (honoring her contract) and, when not on stage, would picket the production.”3 Others associated with the production, including Langston Hughes, announced that they would join Rahn’s picket line. Rather than endure the publicity the protest would cause, the theater cancelled the performance.
Rahn’s willingness to fight racial prejudice and injustices was not limited to this occasion. Among her colleagues in show business, Rahn was well known as an advocate for the fair treatment of African-American performers. She often stood up to theater producers and owners, calling attention to their unjust treatment of black performers and, on several occasions, forcing them to honor contracts with black performers and pay promised wages.
On January 7, 1950, Muriel Rahn sang spirituals and an aria from The Barrier at the formal opening of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters founded by Carl Van Vechten at Yale University.