Authenticity, Mimicry, and Early African American Entertainment
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, African Americans had reason to be wary of the term authenticity as applied to theatrical performance. White performers in blackface had long saturated the popular imagination with exaggerated and demeaning racial stereotypes. That the theater could make these seem like “authentic” versions of African Americans is evident in an 1840 description in the Knickerbocker praising Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice’s blackface enactment of Jim Crow at New York’s Bowery Theatre:
Entering the theatre, we found it crammed from pit to dome, and the best representative of our American negro that we ever saw was stretching every mouth in the house to its utmost tension. Such a natural gait!—such a laugh!—and such a twitching-up of the arm and shoulder! It was the negro, par excellence. Long live JAMES CROW, Esquire!1
Minstrelsy, James Weldon Johnson wrote, “fixed the tradition of the Negro as only an irresponsible, happy-go-lucky, wide grinning, loud laughing, shuffling, banjo playing, singing, dancing sort of being” into an enduring stage tradition. At the same time, Johnson continued, minstrel companies provided “an essential training and theatrical experience which, at the time, could not have been acquired from any other source” and which paved the way for another phase of African American performance in the Harlem Renaissance and later.2
As African Americans increasingly appeared in minstrelsy, vaudeville, and musical theater, they strategically negotiated the terms by which these “authentic” black types dominated the popular stage. Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin describes how the “Old Plantation,” a live display at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in which African Americans reenacted scenes of slavery, shifted from the comic ridicule of minstrelsy toward a “conflation of black authenticity and white theatrical construction” that became the “basis for a curriculum on how to be black.”3 Similarly, Daphne Brooks comments on how early in their careers, Bert Williams and George Walker were hired [End Page 151] to impersonate Africans from Dahomey at the 1893 Midwinter Fair in San Francisco, the first of many such performances in which they attempted “to straddle the boundaries between an ‘authentic’ and a fanciful ‘blackness.’”4 Williams and Walker billed themselves in later vaudeville acts as the “Two Real Coons,” highlighting both their artistic ability and their racial authority to enact these comic types.
It was not only through reappropriating black characterizations that African Americans negotiated the typecasting typical of commercial entertainments of the time. Cross-racial impersonations by African American actors also complicated the terms of theatrical authenticity. Chinese immigrant characters, for instance, were regularly played by African American vaudeville and musical theater performers in individual specialty numbers and duos titled “The Chinaman and the Coon.” Particularly popular was the “Fun in a Chinese Laundry” sketch, in which a Chinese character used an unintelligible laundry ticket to cheat an African American customer. By 1916, these enactments were so common that Lester A. Walton, the regular theater critic for the African American newspaper the New York Age, remarked that “for years the colored performer has been sadly declaring: ‘Our field is limited; our color permits us to appear on the stage as Negroes only, maybe now and then a Chinaman.’”5
Reviews of these Chinese acts published in 1916 in the Indianapolis-based African American newspaper, The Freeman, affirm how these acts were often noted for their presumed verisimilitude. Performing in Boston, Gus Stevens is praised as having played the part of “One Lung, the Chinaman, so natural, his make-up, dialect and every move was so perfect that few could detect that he wasn’t a real Chinaman.”6 Another reviewer in Philadelphia comments that “George Catlin has the reputation of being the best Chinese impersonator in the country and speaks the real language.”7
At first glance, praise for the authenticity of African American yellowface seems similar to that given to white actors performing such caricatures. Since the 1850s, the figure of the “Chinaman,” a characterization informed by the virulent anti-Asian sentiments that were also manifested in exclusion laws and racial violence, had been regularly enacted by white actors such as Charles T. Parsloe Jr., well known for his Chinese roles in Bret Harte’s Two Men of Sandy Bar (1876), Harte and Mark Twain’s Ah Sin (1877), Joaquin Miller’s The Danites in the Sierras (1877), and Bartley Theodore Campbell’s My Partner (1879). By the time he finished his final appearance as Wing Lee in My Partner (1879), Parsloe earned high praise from the New York Mirror: “In Chinese roles Mr. Parsloe is inimitable.”8 Though these were sidekick roles rather than [End Page 152] main characters, Parsloe endeared himself to audiences with multiple scenes of mischief, theft, and slapstick comedy; his trademarks included heavily accented English, a queue attached to a skullcap, and a gap between his teeth that suggested what Twain called “the true Mongrel look.”9 Notably, Twain commented on Parsloe’s performance as Ah Sin as highly authentic: “Whoever sees Mr. Parsloe in this character sees as good and natural and consistent a Chinaman as he can see in San Francisco.”10
Although in appearance and action African American “Chinaman” acts seemed no different from those in white productions, there were important distinctions between white and African American yellowface. A 1909 review by J. D. Howard in The Freeman suggests that African American performers as well as audience members thought of the “Chinaman” as an overused racial type. Howard quotes praise from The Star for Sam Cook and Jim Steven’s version of the Chinese laundry sketch:
Ordinarily the announcement of a stage Chinaman is a signal to cringe, and when it is coupled with a sketch that suggests a laundry it means to cringe all the harder. But Cook and his partner, Jim Stevens who presents a Negro character that serves as an excellent foil to the Chinaman, make their sketch, “No Check-ee, No Wash-ee,” the hit of the bill.11
To deliver a more innovative performance of the Chinese laundry sketch, The Star writes, “Cook, apparently, has discarded the traditional stage Chinaman in to-to; has gone out into Chinatown and studied the Chinaman from life, and then created and embellished a character true to life and, more important, to stage art.” In doing so, “he gives to John Chinaman some little irresistible touches.”12 Enhancing the authenticity of the stage character is seen as proof of Cook’s artistic ability even when reviving a tired caricature.
Other reviews also emphasize how well African Americans imitated other common ethnic and racial stage types, meticulously refining their speech, makeup, costume, gesture, and facial expressions to create novel impressions. A 1911 Freeman review of the vaudeville duo H. Quallie and Lena Clark comments that “Mr. Clark’s impersonations were refreshingly new and he got away with some very difficult character stuff. I say ‘new’ advisedly, for it is not only something new to see a performer in black face get away with an impersonation of a Jew, but [it] is a distinct novelty as well.” Like many other vaudeville shows, the Clarks’ performance included several ethnic characters, including “another song by Mr. Clark, ‘Go On, Good-A-Bye,’ a Dago ditty,” which “was also well received”; however, it is this Jewish novelty number that wins the most praise for Quallie Clark: “His Hebrew song, ‘Rebecca,’ won him big acknowledgment. At times it was hard for one to believe that he was a [End Page 153] colored man, so perfect was his accent and so realistically faithful were his portrayals of a real Jew.”13 In 1913 another Freeman review marveled that Margie Crosby, “the girl with a Jewish face,” is a “reality” and “a finished performer.” Crosby, who had appeared previously as a part of a vaudeville duo with Tom Scott, juxtaposed a familiar black type with an orientalized Jewish number in her solo performance: “She enters singing, ‘Ephram Jones’ which is done with dash and pleasing movement. She comes back with ‘In My Harem’ done in a Yiddish—a Hebrew impersonation. She shines here as a performer, doing the stunt equal to similar work seen on the best stages.”14
African American performers regularly performed American Indian types to similar acclaim. In his assessment of a 1904 production of Bob Cole’s musical comedy Looney Dreamland by the Black Patti Troubadours, Sylvester Russell says that the “most interesting chorus feature of all” is “Big Indian Chief,” the “first original development of Indian song music, not in rag-time, by Cole and Rosamond Johnson” and concludes that “Negro actors make elegant looking Indians, so everything in that line was perfection.”15 The song “Love Me All of the Time,” as sung by Theresa Bluford in a vaudeville act with Barrington Carter, also drew acclaim in 1906: “[Bluford’s] appearance as an Indian maiden represented the highest grade of art.”16
Her make-up is so exact that one seeing her anywhere could not help taking her for one who might be akin to Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” or “Minnehaha.” She was indeed clever in her gestures. She had the proper amount of that shyness that seems to be the nature of the Indian maiden when the lover makes his overtures to one. Other teams have failed in this same sort of an act and have failed flatly, and what seemed to be the failure was that they did not possess the talent. Carter and Bluford are extremely great in their portrayal because they have studied every way until they have brought it up to a realistic scene.17
As with their Chinese characters, other instances of African American cross-racial performance reproduced caricatured stereotypes as well as problematically lauded them as believable. However, reviews also emphasized their theatrical construction: the craft, labor, and preparation that undergirded these impersonations as well as their strategic adoption as alternatives to black stereotypes.
Blackface and other cross-racial impersonations highlighted the white actor’s ability to transform successfully into a range of different characters. African Americans skilled in cross-racial mimicry (such as Jacob [Harry] Fiddler, a noted Chinese impersonator lauded as “the man of many faces”18) could claim the same privileges as white performers playing similar roles. In his review of Gus Hill’s Smart Set Company in 1905, Milton Lewis frames the inclusion of a range of character types as demonstrating the progress of African American [End Page 154] theater. Lewis declares that “no disparagement is to be uttered against the black cork regime of the days gone by,” viewing blackface as “a necessity from a theatrical standpoint.” What has changed is that such stereotypes are no longer the “whole show.” Rather, the Smart Set presented “a composite study of the stage from a racial viewpoint” that includes “every phase of stardom from low Negro comicalities to the most beautiful renditions of bits of opera, operatic in spirit and tone.” Lewis declares that “not only the uglier and lower phases of Negro life are to be depicted but those of refinement are to be delineated,” and this range of abilities shown by African American performers will “prove the cramped condition of the colored performer.”19 Not only could African Americans excel at more refined entertainments such as opera in addition to the standard minstrel stereotypes; they could also provide theatrical attractions that were understood as neither black nor white. Lewis also notes that, in this production, the “Japanese with rikshaw [sic] excited admiration” and that there is “a superbly costumed chorus of Indian lads and maidens all of which makes a spectacular presentation.”20
As African Americans affirmed their ability to perform a range of characterizations beyond minstrelsy’s caricatures, they also challenged the idea that black bodies were limited to a more primitive “natural” state and incapable of true acting. In her “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston would declare that “the Negro, the world over, is famous as a mimic,” and that far from lacking in originality, mimicry “is an art in itself.”21 Capturing what was seen as the “essence” of another race, especially one so presumably alien as the oriental (Chinese or Japanese) character, could well support claims for the actor’s artistic success. Such testimonies to the versatility and artistry of African American actors clearly suggest that African American theatrical production—including its adoption of racial stereotypes—was seen as a mode of racial uplift. But could these cross-racial performances also have registered, albeit more subtly, less overtly racist relations between African Americans and those they imitated? Of Gus Stevens’s 1914 vaudeville act in Philadelphia, The Freeman wrote that “his make-up was perfection, so much so that it really fooled a number of Chinamen who attended regularly every night to see the act. Laughter was almost unceasing.”22 Were Chinese men in the audience the objects of this unceasing laughter? Or did they also laugh along with white and African American spectators in recognition of Stevens’s artful foolery? These questions reveal the complex processes by which the stamp of authenticity was conferred upon cross-racial performance: how African Americans may have performed in ways that unsettled as well as reiterated the dominant terms of yellowface. [End Page 155]
Josephine Lee is professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature and Culture. Her new book, Orientalism in Black and White: American Theater before 1925, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2022. She is also the author of The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Temple University Press, 1997).
1. “Bowery Theatre,” Knickerbocker: Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, vol. 16 (July 1840), 84.
2. James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930; repr. New York: Arno 1967), 87.
3. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, “Lessons in Blackbody Minstrelsy: Old Plantation and Manufacture of Black Authenticity,” TDR 57.2 (2013): 102–3.
4. Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 223.
5. Lester A. Walton, “A Long Step Forward,” New York Age, January 13, 1916.
6. “Boston, Mass., Theatrical Notes,” The Freeman (Indianapolis), January 22, 1916.
7. “J. H. Gray, Gibson’s New Standard Theatre, Philadelphia,” The Freeman, October 21, 1916.
8. Quoted in Sean Metzger, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 56.
9. Metzger, Chinese Looks, 43.
10. “Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s New Play at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York—Mark Twain’s Funny Speech (reprinted from the New York World),” San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, August 9, 1877.
11. J. D. Howard, “Cook and Stevens,” The Freeman, October 23, 1909.
13. “At the Crown Garden Theatre, Indianapolis, Ind.: The Clarks,” The Freeman, May 6, 1911.
14. “At the New Crown Garden: Margie Crosby—the Girl with a Jew Face,” The Freeman, August 16, 1913. The allusion to “Ephram Jones” appears in the lyrics of “Old Massa Had a Yaller Gal,” collected in Newman Ivey White’s American Negro Folk-Songs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1928). For more context on the Clarks and Crosby, see Rachel Rubenstein, “‘Strange Rendering’: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish and the Staging of Race at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” American Jewish History 101.1 (2017): 35–55.
15. Sylvester Russell, “The Black Patti Show,” The Freeman, August 17, 1904.
16. “Free Lance,” “Carter & Bluford,” The Freeman, November 24, 1906.
17. “Free Lance.”
18. “The Stage,” The Freeman, June 1, 1907.
19. Milton Lewis, “The Smart Set Company,” The Freeman, December 23, 1905.
21. In Negro: An Anthology, edited by Nancy Cunard (London: Wishart, 1934) 59.
22. “Gibson’s New Standard Theater, Philadelphia,” The Freeman, June 27, 1914.