The Vaudeville genre was particularly popular in the United States and Canada from the late 1900s until its decline in the 1920s. Including musicians, dancers, actors in short scenes, comedians, magicians, animals, and many other acts, these performances were various and unique, often having little relation to one another, yet grouped on one bill. The bill was repeated throughout one circuit generally and then replaced with a new build to complete the circuit again. Immigrants and black patrons were relegated most often to the back of the gallery or on the balcony, called the "crow's roost." Black patrons, however, as well as some other groups, such as Italians, also had to option of attending their own shows on smaller circuits. African American vaudeville performers dealt with injustice at the hands of theater owners, but leant their voice through art to a repressed people.

            Vaudeville shows, even on the predominately white circuits, were not without African American stars. Stars like Bert Williams, 'Black Patti', Sherman Dudley, the Whitman sisters, and many more gained enough fame in their arts to be featured alongside white entertainers on those circuits. Those who were comedians, such as Williams, would "put blackface on, like the whites used to when they were in minstrel shows." Blackface was prominent in minstrel shows, which declined in popularity with the advent of vaudeville, and was used predominately by white Americans to parody stereotypes such as a mindless and happy slave on a plantation. African American comedians began to use it in vaudeville as an ironic parody of these minstrel acts, where they could react to the generalizations of white men in a way that was non-confrontational and more accepted by the white men being parodied. Others, like singers and musicians, gained prominence without parody among minority populations, earning a spot on these predominately white tours that paid better wages and included better lodgings than the smaller minority organized and exclusive tours.

            Sherman Dudley, like many vaudeville performers, had gotten his start in minstrel shows, gaining fame with a famous comedy act involving a trained mule that appeared to understand speech by nodding when spoken to, and moving into vaudeville as minstrelsy

Sherman Dudley, African-American early show business entrepreneur

lost favor with audiences. He wrote a play, The Smart Set, which was first performed in 1896, and enjoyed popularity until 1912, when he closed production in favor of concentrating on the development of the black vaudeville circuit. A comedian and musician, Dudley was an active member of the Colored Actors' Union, one of the few organizations designed to protect the rights of minority actors, who often suffered abuses at the hands of white managers or patrons. In 1911, he started S. H. Dudley Enterprises and began to buy theaters around Maryland and Virginia. Within a few years, he had begun the first black vaudeville circuit, which covered over 28 theaters and contracted actors for eight months. Black vaudeville declined to the point of extinction during the 1930s, essentially ending as a popular movement when he sold his theaters during the onset of the Great Depression.

            The Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) was established soon after, gaining formal recognition in 1920. It was run and organized by white men, with only a few black theater owners included, but booked all black acts into theaters from the East coast to Oklahoma, although at lower pay rates than white vaudeville tours. TOBA was the best chance African American performers had at performing below the Mason-Dixon line, and the most secure way to attempt a circuit, but even it was not without injustice. The theaters included in TOBA were largely white owned, and owners and producers could cancel a show with no warning, leaving artists without pay or any chance of recourse. Performers were also required to do midnight shows, which "appealed to rowdy crowds, who demanded music, dance, and laughter sparked by bawdry." Black stagehands similarly suffered; without a union of their own, they could be and often were fired for white counterparts.

            In his Reflections on Black History, Thomas Fleming remarks that Bert Williams a vaudeville comedian, "had the biggest name" among the black entertainers. Williams was born in the Bahamas, but spent most of his early life in the United States, where he found it necessary to turn to his comic talent to earn a living, having to give up his civil engineering studies at Stanford. He wore the blackface makeup, reverting to the minstrel character of the "coon", a black, witless character on the surface, while portraying his persona as a devious and clever character beneath this persona. Theatre Magazine called him "a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American Stage" and New York Dramatic Mirror called him "one of the great comedians of the world." Williams began his career wit a partner, George W. Walker. His successful duo career with Walker took him to Broadway, but ended when Walker died of syphilis in 1909. Williams then joined the Ziegfeld Follies, at this time an exclusively white act that was a rare mix of Broadway shows and vaudeville acts. He starred in cinema as one of the first black comedians to be on screen and produced and directed his own short film, A Natural Born Gambler and Fish. He was a musical artist as well, releasing several records, the most popular being "Nobody."

            Sissieretta Jones, like Williams, was an African American performer who performed in areas that were previously exclusively white, including Carnegie Hall. Jones was well known as "the Black Patti," a title given to compare her to Adelina Patti, a well known Italian operatic singer. Jones was a soprano who became known internationally both for her classical opera performances and her musical comedies, performed with her own troupe and often composed by Bob Cole and Billy Johnson, well known vaudeville composers. Her troupe contained acrobats, comedians, including Williams for some time, and dancers, as well as other vocalists; her operatic performances, however, were the stars of most shows. She performed for four consecutive presidents from Harrison to Roosevelt, and toured the United States, Africa, Australia, and Europe.

            The Whitman sisters began as a singing act, getting their start in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, under the

The Whitman Sisters

management of their father, an influential preacher. After moving their performances away from traditional religious songs to dancing and sorrow songs, the girls toured in Europe, a place Jones wrote was much more accepting of black performers as well as women, with their mother as manager. They returned to America, where the influence of the church and their self-efficiency and values made them an attractive act for theaters and churches. Eventually, the Whitman sisters began their own troupe, which tended to gather talented children they called "picks." They were known for their strict rules, such as not allowing children to perform unless they had completed homework, and, as a result, were a popular option for young artists and started many acts that later became popular.

            The black vaudeville circuit was never quite as popular as the predominately white circuits; shows were still occasionally cancelled and money was not secure. Their advent, however, and artists such as Williams, Jones, and the Whitman sisters, served as an important artistic outlet for African Americans, as well as a chance for African Americans to parody their treatment and speak out against injustice in a way that was not seen as confrontational.

 

 

Bibliography

"Bert Williams Biography" Encyclopedia of World Biography. http://www.notablebiographies.com/supp/Supplement-Sp-Z/Williams-Bert.ht…

Fleming, Thomas. Reflections on Black History. Part 2, "Black Entertainers on Vaudeville" 1997.

 

Foster, Catherine D. "Jones, Sissieretta (1869-1933). BlackPast.org.

 

George, Nadine Angela Ethlyn. The royalty of negro vaudeville: The whitman sisters and the negotiation of race, gender and class in african american theatre, 1900-1940. PhD Thesis, Northwestern University 1998.

 

Hill, Errol G and Hatch, James V. A History of African American Theater. New York: Cambridge University Press (2004).

Jones, Leroy (1963). Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed from It. NY: TMorrow Quill Paperbacks. pp. 85–86.

Kharen Monsho, "Dudley, Sherman H.,"2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Lewis, Barbara. "The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900-1940, and: Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism, and: No Surrender! No Retreat!: African American Pioneer Performers of Twentieth-Century American Theater (review)" Project Muse. http://www.mitpressjournals.org.ezproxy3.library.arizona.edu/doi/pdf/10….

Padgett, Ken. "Bert Williams 1874-1922." Black-face. http://black-face.com/Bert-Williams.htm

 

Southern, Eileen (1997). The music of black Americans: a history (3 ed.). New York: Norton. pp. 297–98. ISBN 9780393038439.

 

Fleming, Thomas. Reflections on Black History. Part 2, "Black Entertainers on Vaudeville" 1997.

Ibid

Jones, Leroy (1963). Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed from It. NY: TMorrow Quill Paperbacks. pp. 85–86.

Southern, Eileen (1997). The music of black Americans: a history (3 ed.). New York: Norton. pp. 297–98. ISBN 9780393038439.

Hill, Errol G and Hatch, James V. A History of African American Theater. New York: Cambridge University Press (2004).

Fleming, Thomas.

Padgett, Ken. "Bert Williams 1874-1922." Black-face. http://black-face.com/Bert-Williams.htm

New York Dramatic Mirror, December 7, 1918. Accessed online.

Foster, Catherine D. "Jones, Sissieretta (1869-1933). BlackPast.org.

George, Nadine Angela Ethlyn. The royalty of negro vaudeville: The whitman sisters and the negotiation of race, gender and class in african american theatre, 1900-1940. PhD Thesis, Northwestern University 1998.