Sunday, April 28, 2024

Colored Men and Women on the Stage

Aida Overton Walker (1880–1914)
From Jim Crow: Voices from a Century of Struggle (Part One: 1876–1919)

Hattie McIntosh, George Walker, Aida Overton Walker, Bert Williams, and Lottie Williams performing the cakewalk in the 1903 production of In Dahomey—the first full-length all-Black Broadway production. Photograph first published in The Playgoer in 1903. (New York Public Library)
When the musical comedy In Dahomey was in rehearsals during the early weeks of 1903, rumors spread in New York City about possible trouble—and even violence—that might confront the opening night audience. “There have been times when the trouble-breeders have foreboded a race war,” acknowledged The New York Times’s laudatory review of the show, the first full-length all-Black production in a Broadway theater. “But all went well last night.”

Neither the rumors nor the fears were without foundation. Only three years earlier, during the Tenderloin Race Riot of 1900, hundreds of white men, with the encouragement and participation of members of the police force, directed their ire at the most visible targets in the neighborhood: Black men heading home after a night working in theaters and music halls. A mob severely injured the popular comedian Ernest Hogan before he escaped into the lobby of a hotel. Vaudevillian George Walker, heading home in a streetcar, fled from a gang of men and spent the night hiding in a cellar. The novelist and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was offered shelter in a saloon during the rioting, only to be drugged and robbed.

The lingering tensions merely amplified already existing prejudices among some theatergoers. “New York is very sympathetic with the negro in the South,” wrote one rancorous reviewer, “but when it comes to sitting next to him in its own theatres, a slight repugnance demonstrates itself. He may be a man and a brother all right, but when it comes to touching elbows with him for an entire evening, your New Yorker objects quite as strenuously as the Southerner. The management of the New York Theatre met the predicament by assigning seats for negroes in separate parts of the house.”

Despite the hostility of racists and other naysayers, In Dahomey was a smash hit, and it is regarded as a groundbreaking moment in theater history. With a book by Jesse A. Shipp, music by Will Marion Cook, and lyrics by Dunbar, the show featured in its lead roles Walker and his comedic partner, Bert Williams. Doubling as choreographer, Walker’s wife, Aida Overton, played Carrie Brown, who works as a shop girl but aspires to become a star “up on Broadway.” Nearly one hundred people made up the cast, crew, and orchestra. Skillfully weaving and fusing vaudeville, minstrel shows, farce, operetta, and musical comedy, the show subverted and satirized the stereotypes common to each of those genres. After a successful run on Broadway, the production moved to London, including a command performance at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the ninth birthday of the future Edward VIII. The company then traveled to theaters throughout Great Britain and returned to New York for a revival on Broadway and a tour of theaters across the United States.

George Walker scorned the stereotypes perpetuated by minstrel shows and the overall depiction of Black life in the theater: “It's all rot, this slap-stick-bandanna handkerchief-bladder in the face act, with which Negro acting is associated. It ought to die out and we are trying hard to kill it.” He and Williams aimed to present audiences with “real Negroes” in their three Broadway hit musicals; In Dahomey was followed by Abyssinia (1906) and Bandanna Land (1907). Inevitably, how far they could change the formula was limited by what their mostly white audiences would accept, and everyone involved with the production had to navigate the color line. While on tour, Aida Walker explained the predicament to a reporter for the Indianapolis Freeman in 1906:
You haven’t the faintest conception of the difficulties which must be overcome, of the prejudices which must be soothed, of the things we must avoid whenever we write or sing a piece of music, put on a player sketch, walk out in the street or land in a new town.

No white actor can understand these things, much less appreciate them. Every little thing we do must be thought out and arranged by Negroes, because they alone know how easy it is for a colored show to offend a white audience.

Let me give you an example. In all the ten years that I have appeared in and helped to produce a great many plays of a musical nature there has never been even the remotest suspicion of a love story in any of them.

During those same ten years I don't think there has been a single white company which has produced any kind of musical play in which a love story was not the central notion.

Now why is this? It is not accident or because we don't want to put on plays as beautiful and artistic in every way as do white actors, but because there is a popular prejudice against love scenes enacted by negroes. . . . The public does not appreciate our limitations which other people have made for us.
As James Weldon Johnson recalled three decades later in Black Manhattan, “If anything approaching a love duet was introduced in a musical comedy, it had to be broadly burlesqued. The reason behind this taboo lay in the belief that a love scene between two Negroes could not strike a white audience except as ridiculous.”

Born and raised in New York City, Aida Overton Walker was often referred to as the “Queen of the Cakewalk” for her role in transforming the dance into a turn-of-the-century craze. The cakewalk was originally created by Blacks on plantations in the antebellum South, and the manner and dress were often done in mockery of the balls and waltzes favored by slaveowners. After the Civil War, white minstrel performers turned the cakewalk into a form of buffoonery, to the delight of white audiences, and soon Black performers were performing routines in response to the minstrel shows, creating what theater historian David Krasner has called a “hall of mirrors”: Black vaudeville artists evoking white blackface performers parodying Black people mocking white slaveowners. Walker’s choreography, which stripped the dance of caricature, was so popular that she added her own mirror to the hall when white socialites on both sides of the Atlantic imitated her version. One reporter noted she “has taken the ‘400’ by storm by her graceful dancing. . . . Night after night the women of the younger society set glide and swing to the rhythmic strains of syncopated music.”

In the introduction to the first volume of Jim Crow: Voices from a Century of Struggle, a new Library of America anthology, Tyina L. Steptoe remarks that Aida Overton Walker “fused art and political protest. She viewed Black stage performers as exemplars of racial uplift, since they brought Black cultural expressions to international audiences.” The following essay published by Walker in The Colored American Magazine explains her belief that Black actors do “more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people.”

Notes: Walker’s essay mentions a handful of “distinguished people” in England who hosted cast members of the Williams and Walker Company. Mrs. Arthur Paget (born Mary Fiske Stevens), wife of a British army officer, was an American who had inherited most of the estate of her father, a wealthy Boston hotel proprietor. Miss Muriel Wilson was the daughter of Arthur Stanley Wilson, a shipping magnate; the Wilsons were closely associated with the family of King Edward VII. Mrs. Frank Avery was a wealthy American expatriate who invited cast members to perform a cakewalk at her home on Grosvenor Square in London. Lady Constance Mackenzie was the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Cromartie; in the decade after she met members of the Williams and Walker cast, she became a professional dancer and earned some notoriety in the British press for dancing bare-legged on the stage. Sir Thomas Lipton was the owner of a British grocery store chain who founded the Lipton tea company in 1890.

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Colored people on the stage have been given very little consideration by our colored writers and critics. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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