The Old Invalid of Black Show Business


Foreword to Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts by Edward Mapp

To the unknowing, “Show business” can be an illusive invalid as well as a glamorous occupation. There was a time, however, when for the black performer, it was not too illusive nor was it an invalid. For many years, being in show business was fabulous and most times glamorous. It was fabulous in 1821 when the African Company, with John Hewlett as its star, presented the classics at Brown’s Theatre on Bleecker and Mercer Sts., in what was later to become Greenwich Village. The company was so successful that they graciously made a partition in the back of the house to accommodate the whites. It was fabulous when Ira Aldridge was world famous for his portrayals of Othello and the Moor in “Titus Andronicus”; when the black performer decided to make some of the big money being made by the minstrel shows that imitated him by imitating the imitators; and when the Lafayette Players sent two acting companies a season with such stars as Laura Bowman, Abbie Mitchell, Clarence Brooks, Frank Wilson, Rose McClendon and many others.

When Harlem had little theatre groups like the Allied Re players, the Rose McClendon Players, The American Negro Theatre, The Suitcase Theatre and various church groups — these groups were the proving grounds for Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Frederick O’Neal, Earle Hyman, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Alice Childress and on and on — these were more of the fabulous days! It was fabulous when Williams and Walker captured the crowned heads of Europe with their production of “In Dahomey,” and when Broadway would present at least two major black productions a year, such as “Shuffle Along,” “Liza,” “Africana,” “Running Wild,” “Chocolate Dandies,” “Blackbirds,” “7 Come 11,” plus large touring musicals like “The Models,” and “Desires.” The glamor was evident when we had not two but many film stars like Clarence Muse, Nina Mae McKinney, Daniel Haynes and matinée idol, Lorenzo Tucker.

It was fabulous when Oscar Micheaux, Toddy and Million Dollar Films produced rather good films without using the trite racial conflicts so overworked by Hollywood. I might add that Oscar Micheaux produced, wrote, directed and edited his films and we haven’t had one black person or company attempt to take his place in this lucrative field that has a ready market hungry for such a product. No, the films were not all fabulous, nor were the stage productions, but the artists were great and they were able to learn and practice their trade in the only way possible…by working at it.

It was fabulous when every social gathering hired a black band and the choices were Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, Eddie South, Chick Webb, or one of many small singing and playing combos all over the country; when Harlem was peppered with night spots like the Cotton Club, Dickie Wells’, Connie’s 101 Ranch, and the Plantation, with full stage shows and not just weekend combos; when Harlem had not just one theatre with stage presentations, but the Lafayette, the Odeon, the Lincoln and the Alhambra with full stage shows every night in the week; when variety theatres over the country didn’t feel that they had a good “bill” unless there was a black act starred; when the performer could be certain of at least fifty weeks a year on tour, with shows managed, written and staged by blacks; and when there were scores of chorus girls and show girls plus many singing and dancing novelty acts.

From these opportunities came the stars like Florence Mills, George Walker, Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, Ada Ward, Ethel Waters, Bob Cole and Bert Williams. It was fabulous when we had serious singers like Caterina Jarboro, Marian Anderson, Etta Moten, Roland Hayes, Hall Johnson Choir, Paul Robeson, and Black Patti and when we had the Helmsley Winfield Dancers, the Van Grona Negro Ballet and the always working and touring Katherine Dunham group. It was fabulous when we had comics like Tim Moore, and a host of fine straight men like Slick Chester. These performers would be tops today without the aid of the black face make-up that was their stock in trade.

I don’t want to convey the notion that we don’t have great artists today, for we well know that we have. I am saying, however, that we have too few in some fields and none at all in others. Sadder still is the fact that we have few places for our talented young people to get their feet wet and few producres to give them the opportunity to prove their talent. If you look into the backgrounds of the stars of today, such as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis, Jr., you will find that they all started in small bistros, churches, and experimental theatres in Harlem or in their hometowns where their own people had faith in their ability and gave them the initial help and chance of exposure to eventually make the grade. Believe me when I tell you the big Broadway agents didn’t snap them up for the big money jobs until they were well on their way to stardom. I have said all this to express that, if the old invalid of black show business would throw away the crutch of the white producer, director, writer and agent and would crawl backward, black performers just might once again become fabulous and success not so illusive.

The names in this Directory are those show biz folk who have achieved recognition in some way and who serve as building blocks to inspire those who are still unknown in the performing arts

Kenn Freeman, Historian

Negro Actors Guild

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