Dance and Identity Politics in American Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters 1900-1935
in Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press
At the dawn of the twentieth century, professional African American dancers were employed primarily in vaudeville, an idiom that combined the theatrical traditions of variety, minstrelsy, and traveling road shows and served as a proving ground for young talent. With a few notable exceptions, these performers were prohibited from touring on white vaudeville circuits. Therefore, black vaudeville circuits like Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) developed and promoted black talent and catered to black audiences. As early African American performers honed their craft, they helped pave the way for others by battling institutionalized racism and restrictions placed on black artistic expression. Barred from portraying serious roles, African American performers took the only genres available to them -- comedy and musicals -- and excelled.
Black female performers of this era faced special challenges reflecting national beliefs about the place of black women in the larger social framework. In this chapter, I examine the black vaudeville troupe known as the Whitman Sisters, which not only starred but was also operated in its entirety by four remarkable female siblings -- Mabel, Essie, Alberta, and Alice. After discussing their contributions to the American stage, I argue that by undermining the race and gender categories of their day, while insisting upon high-class status and challenging the assumptions of audiences, producers, and theater owners, the Whitman Sisters made the vaudeville stage of their time into an unexpected site of resistance to the mores of a world molded by segregation.