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Reviewed by:
  • 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
  • Barbara Lewis (bio)
The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900-1940. By Nadine George-Graves. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000; 183 pp.; illustrations. $45.00 cloth.
Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism. By Kimberly W. Benston. New York: Routledge, 2000; 386 pp.; illustrated; $85.00 cloth; $27.99 paper.
No Surrender! No Retreat! African American Pioneer Performers of Twentieth-Century American Theater. By Glenda E. Gill. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000; 230 pp.; illustrations. $49.95 cloth.

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It was an unseasonably warm spring day in 2001, and just south of Gramercy Park a legend in African American film was being inducted into France's Legion of Honor.1 Shortly after walking into the hall where the ceremony was to be held, I saw the comedian Nipsey Russell. This was a moment not to be missed. I walked up to him. "Mr. Russell," I said, "I just finished a book about the Whitman Sisters, and you were mentioned in it. What do you remember about them?" He smiled broadly and said, "I was real young when I started with them. They came through Atlanta, and I joined up with the troupe."

Russell was one of several score of talented children, also called "picks,"2 that, over the years, worked with the Whitman Sisters vaudeville act, which at its height counted as many as 42 members. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was another pick trained by the Whitmans who, like Russell, went on to work for many years in live entertainment and film. Because of their reputation for running a tight [End Page 172] outfit, many parents rejoiced when their children joined the Whitmans. Picks were not allowed onstage if their homework wasn't done, and mixed-sex adult couples could not stay in the same hotel room unless they were married.

In this biography of the Whitman Sisters, Nadine George-Graves pulls from the back shelf, dusts off, and polishes to a surprising sheen a little-known aspect of African American dance, performance, theatre, and gender history. The Whitman Sisters were the stars of a successful vaudeville company that, in the midst of a racially tense postbellum era through to the dawning of WWII, carved out a definite cultural space for itself. No easy task in a transitional time when the borders of race and gender were being contested and redrawn at the turn of the century. Alberta, Alice, Essie, and Mabel kept pace with the changes by keeping a variety of roles in play. They could be black, they could be white, they could be men, they could be women.

Pale enough to pass, they were mistaken as white in the early part of their career. Later they chose to concentrate their energies within a black sphere, and often portrayed white women onstage for black and white audiences. Alberta often cross-dressed and Essie played drunks, roles traditionally taken by male comics. Alice, the baby sister, was a hoofer, and Mabel sometimes blacked up and played the sexless Mammy. They were versatile onstage and off. Mabel, who managed the troupe, stood up to theatre owners, canceling shows if the money wasn't right and refusing to perform in segregated houses. Essie wrote some of their music and designed and sewed the costumes. Alberta handled the books. For themselves and for others with slave ancestors, they represented a modern possibility: the chance to determine one's road and craft one's image. Theirs was a difficult but special time, and through it all they were able to participate in creating an independent African American aesthetic, emergent in a racially divided era when African American performers catered to the tastes and cultural demands of an eager and growing...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4715
Print ISSN
1054-2043
Pages
pp. 172-175
Launched on MUSE
2002-08-01
Open Access
No
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