Black Vaudeville

Excerpts from the African American Registry:

The vaudeville years began as the Reconstruction Era ended, from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. The Black acts were unique because the performers brought in different experiences that the white performers could not convey. Although Black performers encountered Jim Crow, a Vaudeville gig was better than being a maid or farm worker. Vaudeville had circuits to keep the show business at the time organized. It was difficult for a Black performer to be accepted into the white circuit. Eventually, Black circuits were created to give Black performers more opportunities. Black vaudeville made it possible for African Americans to enjoy entertainment through their heritage.

The Chitlin’ Circuits were the Black performers’ booking associations. The association for white performers was titled Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), or “tough on black actors.” The template of T.O.B.A. was S.H. Dudley Enterprises, owned by Sherman Dudley. It did not treat white and Black performers equally; therefore, the Chitlin’ Circuits were created. The booking associations would act as a middleman between the performer’s agent and the theater owner. The talent included performers of multiple trades, such as actors, singers, comedians, musicians, dancers and acrobats. The circuit was named after food that whites considered disgusting. The touring groups would perform in multiple venues, such as school auditoriums because theaters were not always available. They would travel to Black neighborhoods to bring the entertainment. This reached out to the community that T.O.B.A. was missing.

Black musicians and composers of the vaudeville era influenced American comedy, jazz, and Broadway musical theater. The popular music of the time was ragtime, consisting of the piano and banjo. Ragtime was developed from Black folk music.

Black Theater Studies scholar Nadine George-Graves writes “the Whitman Sisters were one of the highest-paying acts in the Vaudeville circuit. The sisters began performing around 1899. They were singing and dancing acts. The sisters started performing for their church. Later, the two older sisters were invited to perform in New York by George Walker, but their father and manager said no, so they stayed to finish their education. The sisters continued performing in the south. Eventually, they were able to perform for King George V. The sisters started a company called The Whitman Sisters’ New Orleans Troubadours. They added other acts, such as Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. People of all races enjoyed their show.”

Even after Vaudeville was no longer in its prime, it continued to perform in theaters and churches around the nation and was admired by all audience members. In 1915, Clarence Williams was a vaudevillian musician who was able to record his act with Armand Piron on disc. As the medium of film emerged in the 1920s, the room for stage productions changed. Broadway beckoned theater which chose a more Art related audience content. The Lafayette Theater and the Karamu House were two early Black stage businesses.

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