Dusky Maidens: The Odyssey of the Early Black Dramatic Actress.
What stands out in Jo Tanner's valuable account of the early black dramatic actresses in this country are both the difficulties and triumphs these women faced as they attempted to control their representation on-stage despite the limited roles available to them. Tracing the evolution of these women before 1950--beginning with their appearance in vaudeville and variety acts, then in all-black musical and dramatic shows, and, eventually, in mammy/servant roles on Broadway--Tanner shows how, despite terrible obstacles, many of these women managed to stay professionally active for a quarter of a century. By confronting and challenging social attitudes which assumed that blacks were incapable of serious dramatic roles or "higher" art forms, such as classical music, these women questioned the racist stereotypes perpetrated by the minstrel shows, legitimized the role of the black woman on-stage, provided professional opportunity and training for other aspiring black women actresses, and in the process helped to pave the way for the future successes of women such as Marian Anderson and Ethel Waters. Paying tribute to these precursors, Tanner's work fills an important gap in the history of both African Americans, especially women, and the American musical and popular arts in general.
Tanner's introduction provides the essential background for the chapters that follow, as she places her early African American women actresses within the context of social and theatrical history. For example, by limiting black performers' access to "legitimate" Broadway theatre, the syndicate's control of bookings in New York City in the teens ironically contributed to the formation of alternate all-black troupes such as the Lafayette Players, where many black actresses received professional experience and training. Tanner's introduction also explains how, as stepchildren of the minstrel form, the vaudeville and variety acts developed as the primary post-Civil War dramatic venues available to black actresses, and were permissible because they helped ease a nation's conscience about the "free" black presence in this country. Poised against the history of lynchings in the early part of this century, the great black migration northward, and the social stereotype of the black women's unbridled sexuality (thus justifying her abuse by white men), the efforts of Tanner's examples of early black women performers who tried to legitimize and enhance the role of the black woman on-stage become all the more understandable. Attempting, like their contemporaries in literature and the club movement, to create an audience more receptive to black women in art, these early actresses tried to subvert and expand the limited forms available to them--by incorporating, for example, operettas into their variety acts in order to feature their classical training and talent.
Tanner's first chapter highlights "specialty acts" of black female artists in theatre prior to 1890. If not restricted to roles such as Topsy in the period's popular, minstrel-like stage versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, women performers such as Elizabeth Taylor-Greenfield (the "Black Swan"), Black Patti, and the Hyer sisters sang at private parties, in churches, and on the vaudeville circuit, since they were denied access to more "legitimate" forms such as the Met. Despite the limits they faced, however, the successes of these women helped foster the transition from minstrelsy to black musical comedy by challenging traditional stereotypes of black women on the professional stage. Through their musical shows, such as the Hyer Sisters' 1876 Out of Drama (the first musical show by a black organization), these performers also provided professional opportunities for the next generation of aspiring black women Tanner subsequently describes.
In her next chapter, Tanner shows how the turn-of-the-century black women performers she calls" `Glorified' Coloured Girls" continued to help make the transition to serious drama, even though they too were denied access to the more legitimate theatres on Broadway. Because of all the conclusions Tanner draws from her examples, this is perhaps her best chapter. Here she cites The Creole Show (1890) as an important benchmark in the history of the black actress, since, in Tanner's view, this show posed the first real challenge to blackface (minstrelsy) tradition and expanded professional opportunities for black women. Featuring a chorus of beautifully dressed, light-skinned women of color who sang and danced the cakewalk, this show "glorified" the colored girl, Tanner argues, and helped produce a number of female stars, such as Florence Hines, the DeWolfe sisters, Hattie Macintosh, and Ada Overton. In turn, these women used the show as a springboard for their own successes in both vaudeville acts and black theatricals. Spawning a number of shows that both drew on and extended the minstrel tradition, The Creole Show also helped legitimize black performers and indigenous black musical forms such as ragtime. By the end of the century, a number of black repertory companies headed by performer/managers such as Bob Cole had been established and were performing their own shows which mixed drama and music, often operettas, that showcased black women's musical talent and were the base from which the present American musical comedy evolved. These shows played successfully to white audiences and in general helped to create the musical comedy as a uniquely American form. Moving away from "darky" roles and the burlesque, these theatricals also proposed to a wider audience African settings, as well as urbanized and upwardly mobile blacks. Finally, Tanner argues, these shows helped to create professional opportunities for a future generation of black actresses who eventually would succeed on Broadway, in a number of serious roles.
Tanner's third chapter, "Class Acts," describes three black female performers of the early 1900s--Dora Dean (the "Black Venus"), Mme. Sissearetta Jones ("Black Patti"), and Ida "Topsey" Forsyne. As with Tanner's previous examples, these women make clear the interconnections between generations of black female performers; for example, the all-black musical troupes that both Dean and Jones formed provided ample professional opportunities and training for many black women in theatre. Not surprisingly, both Forsyne and Dean began their careers with Black Patti's Troubadours. Equally important, all of these women, primarily as dancers or singers, contributed to an elegant stage image. As part of their vaudeville act, Dean and her husband featured the cakewalk, were the first dance team in vaudeville to wear evening wear on stage, and in general established the role of the genteel Negro couple on the American stage. Integrating operatic singing into her show, Black Patti expanded the minstrel tradition to resemble the musical comedy format with a storyline. The fact that Black Patti sang so successfully before primarily white audiences gave decorum and dignity to her roles. Finally, all of these women toured successfully abroad but enjoyed limited success here, as Tanner's example of Forsyne especially shows.
Tanner's final chapter describes in detail the specific careers of a number of black women who entered professional theatre as singers and/or dancers in the musical shows described in her previous chapters, and who also went on to perform in dramatic roles on Broadway and elsewhere. As with their precursors, what emerges in Tanner's account of these "legitimate" black actresses is their artistic drive and integrity, their attempt to control the reception and representation of the limited mammy/servant roles available to them on Broadway, and their willingness to share their talents with others in the African American community. Although their shows were short-lived and their roles stereotyped, at least two of these women, Laura Bowman and Abby Mitchell, achieved two Broadway openings in one season, and garnered positive reviews for the strength and independence of their performances. Such women also participated in militant or alternative theatre groups such as the Lafayette Players and Abbie Mitchell Players and/or taught in specifically African American communities where they were able to help train and influence future generations of black actresses such as Rosetta LeNoire and Ethel Waters.
Thus, Tanner's final chapter and the brief epilogue that follows pick up on some of the key themes that emerge from her study, besides her account of the progressive evolution of the black actress in American theatre. First, throughout her book Tanner details the terrible ironies and. struggles faced by these early black female performers: the often hostile white audiences who assumed that blacks were incapable of serious roles or "higher" art forms (for example, Henrietta Vinton Davis's experience of doing Shakespeare selections for integrated audiences that made fun of her); the successes of black women performers in Europe who entertained heads of state abroad while still denied opportunities here; the black singer's access to the world of private parties, world fairs, and the vaudeville circuit while being barred from the "legitimate" stage such as Broadway or the Met; and finally, her being allowed to perform, but only offstage, so that she would be heard but not seen (Tanner's example of Abbie Mitchell). Torn between performing in all-black theatres and the more lucrative and "legitimate" white ones that barred blacks from attending, and facing often hostile white audiences and co-workers, the aspiring black actress also confronted restrictive forms. Her very fame rested on racist comparisons to her white counterparts ("Black Patti" is one example). She also had to deal with the terrible ironies of her skin color: The very light-skinned women whom the early vaudeville and variety acts featured were denied employment in the '30s and '40s, when the Broadway roles of mammy and black servant "required" darker skin, so that some women of this latter period actually had to "black up" to be accepted.
Secondly, Tanner's work implicitly stresses how closely the life and art of the early black actress were intertwined with those of other black performers: first, male artists, often husbands, and colleagues such as Eubie Blake, with whom these women created successful traveling acts and musical comedy troupes that combined both music and drama; and, second, other black women with whom they either performed as equals, or trained and nourished in churches, local Ys, and all-black theatre and musical groups. In this way, Tanner makes visible the connections between these women and others in the African American community. More on these mutually enriching collaborations would make a fascinating follow-up study, as would further exploration of the intergenerational connections that Tanner sketches in her work. Such study might make even more obvious the heretofore invisible African American community only now coming to light in recent scholarship.
But these are conclusions that the reader must sometimes infer, since they are often more implicit than explicit in Tanner's text. Given the strength and thoroughness of her research, more on the implications of her findings seems called for: for example, a challenge to the implied hierarchy of the arts that ranks classical music and tragedy as necessarily superior to ragtime and comedy, the assumption that some of these early women would have been dramatic actresses if only they could, and the ironies of black women aspiring to perform works by Edgar Allen Poe and William Shakespeare.
To me, the chief irony is the role these actresses had to play in reinforcing the dominant hierarchy of white, Anglo/Euro-American culture and its traditions. In the "realism" of their acting out the roles of servitude, they were not only suppressing the realities of their own cultural traditions and lives but also extending the representation of a culture falsified by white domination. To succeed, they would often have to play "off-limit" roles, acting out the "leading roles" of Anglo-European traditions. Their color, in denying them these roles, forced them into new traditions of theatre and musical theatre which became, in one of the greatest of all these ironies, a genuinely American indigenous art form. What is astounding are not only the successes these women achieved despite the limits they faced, but the ways in which they moved within--and expanded--these traditional roles.
But, altogether, Tanner's study begins to mine a subject that needs exploration. She works as an historian, drawing from a variety of sources, both primary and secondary, that include interviews, handbills, and old photographs, some of which appear as wonderful illustrations in the book. Piecing together the individual stories of early black actresses to support her discussion of the process of the gradual legitimization of the black woman on-stage--via vaudeville and variety acts, musical theatre, and, eventually, Broadway roles--Tanner supplies the reader with compelling research and some provocative conclusions. Indeed, the difficulty of her task is underscored by those occasional moments when even she is forced to admit that there is no other information available on a given individual. All in all, her work is admirable, and makes valuable contributions to theatre and African American women's history.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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