This post is in part of a paid collaboration with AT&T for the AT&T 28 Days campaign.
Many people of today probably aren’t familiar with the term “Vaudeville” when it comes to acting, but we are sure that you are aware of its existence if you’ve ever taken a history class.
Vaudeville is a type of entertainment popular in the US in the early 1990s, featuring a mixture of specialty acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance. What type of song and dance, you ask? Minstrel shows with blackface.
During the start of minstrel shows, African Americans weren’t allowed in the theaters as either actors or patrons, but their caricatures as portrayed by white men covered in burnt cork or greasepaint were a big part in the shows’ entertainment.
One aspect of this dark past that is rarely spoken about is the later involvement and takeover of African Americans in minstrel shows. White people were so entertained by actual Black performers acting in blackface, but they realized soon that they couldn’t compete with the “authenticity” and natural talent of these actors. Therefore, Black-performed minstrel shows were rarely seen in Vaudeville and were limited to no more that one act per show.
Williams and Walker was one of the few all Black minstrel shows that was allowed to perform on white stages. While Bert Williams and George Walker were the leads in this show, the queen of “cakewalk” Aida Overton Walker (also wife to George Walker), stole the show.
Shall we say that her choreography…takes the cake? Yes, figuratively and literally, we shall!
Aida Overton Walker is the hero in this story for so many reasons.
Mrs. Walker was the type of woman who played the game and fought for the representation that she wanted. She refused to be typecasted as “Mammy” similar to other Black women of the time and helped pave the way for future actresses such as Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters.
One of her best accomplishments happened in 1912, only two years before her death in 1914 at the tender age of 34. Walker was asked to play the lead in Oscar Hammerstein’s revival of Salome, at the Victoria Theater in New York City.
While this performance awarded several accolades, it didn’t come without a fight. Walker was asked to perform provocative dance moves that contributed to the promiscuity assumed of Black women at the time. Basically, Aida wasn’t having it.
In a time of racial discrimination and limited work in theater for people of color, Aida Overton Walker still had enough courage to stand up against stereotypes and demand what she wanted.
Want a better visual of the story? Check out this video created by AT&T The Bridge that has Khadi Don reenacting Walker’s big performance.
Feel like you are missing out on a lot of important profiles of Black people throughout history? We felt the same way. Luckily the AT&T 28 Days campaign has been working all Black History Month to bring these untold stories to life.
*Featured image by Ash’s Arthole