- 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...