Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960

Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960

Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960

Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960

Synopsis

A directory of over 500 African American performers and theater people who have made a significant contribution to the American stage from the second decade of the 19th century to the beginning of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Excerpt

Bernard Peterson in this volume has rescued the careers of more than 700 African American men and women who devoted their lives to entertainment. He has set down their achievements, their glories—and where possible, their births and their passings—so that we shall not lose them and so lose our history and, in some very real sense, lose ourselves.

In opening this book, one lifts the cover of a treasure trove of performance gems—actors, producers, designers, dancers, directors, musicians. Here one may find not only Ira Aldridge but his contemporary James Hewlett, the first African American to play Shakespeare's Richard the Third. Here, too, one meets (William Alexander) Brown (his given names remain in dispute), founder and producer of New York City's African Theatre (1821–1823)—all who produced and performed Shakespeare in early America.

It is the fate of most theatre productions, as well as its personnel, to pass quickly from memory. Somerset Maugham, a skilled playwright and a darling of London theatre, abandoned the stage and turned to writing novels because he knew most play scripts to be as ephemeral as yesterday's newspaper. Alas, nearly all actors, designers, writers, technicians in theatre—Black and White— strut their hour or two upon the stage and are heard no more.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) Topsy asked who her parents were, replied that she had none, that she “jes' grew.” So with African American culture—its earliest musicians, street performers, church singers, and riverboat roustabouts will remain forever unknown; we do not know who invented the Charleston or the cakewalk. It took us over 100 years to learn that a Black family had composed the song “Dixie.” Yet, much of what is known of early performance artists is recorded in this directory. While the legends of some African Americans have survived—Bert Williams, Florence Mills, Josephine Baker come to mind—who now recalls the triumphs of Morgan Smith, Ralf Coleman, Laura Bowman, or Inez Clough? Their careers, recorded in faded clippings, are often very difficult . . .

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