Walker, Aida Overton
Walker, Aida Overton
(b. 14 February 1880; d. 11 October 1914), performer.
According to Salem Tutt Whitney in his 1920 article “How to Join a Show,” Aida Overton Walker “[b]y force of ability, diligent study, strenuous work, tenacity of purpose and an almost superfluity of talent...climbed to the top-most rung of the theatrical ladder, without a white or colored peer in her line. And then, she ran afoul of the color line” (Krasner 2002, 71).
Aida Overton was born in New York City to Moses and Pauline Whitfield Overton. The family lived in what was then known as Coontown or Little Africa, an area of what would later be known as Greenwich Village. As a teenager, Overton joined Sissieretta Jones’s famed Black Patti Troubadours. In 1898, a friend, Stella Wiley, convinced her to pose for an American Tobacco Company trading card. At the photo shoot, she met her future husband, George Walker, who, along with Bert Williams, had one of the most successful vaudeville acts of the day. Overton joined their troupe, and the same year, though under the name “The Senegambian Carnival,” the Williams and Walker troupe took over the East Coast tour of Ernest Hogan’s famed show Clorindy, or the Origins of the Cakewalk with Overton as lead dancer. In 1899 Overton and George Walker were married at St. Phillips Episcopal Church.
For the next eleven years, Overton Walker performed in all the Williams and Walker productions and choreographed many of them, including The Policy Players (1899), Sons of Ham (1900), and In Dahomey (1903). This last show traveled to England’s West End, and the company gave a command performance at Buckingham Palace. The Royal Magazine reported, “Aida Overton Walker is a delightful lady and a brilliant dance[r].... [She] is a born actress, and could shine in serious parts, and even Shakespearian drama.”
In 1906 Overton Walker changed the spelling of her name from Ada to Aida and choreographed and starred in Williams and Walker’s Abyssinia. Bandanna Land followed in 1908. It was to be the final Williams and Walker production. During the run of the show, George Walker, who had syphilis, became too ill to perform, and Overton Walker took over his role. Her success at playing Walker’s part gained her some of the most impressive reviews of her career. George Walker never took back his role and died in 1911. Overton Walker would continue to perform his songs and dances in various shows for the rest of her career.
In addition to her work with Williams and Walker, Overton Walker appeared in The Cannibal King (1901), The Red Moon (1909) and the Smart Set Company’s His Honor: The Barber (1911). Her most famous song from the musical was “That’s Why They Call Me Shine” also called, simply, “Shine.”
One of the most startling efforts of her career was Overton Walker’s performance of the Salome dance. First incorporated into the production of Abyssinia, Overton Walker would reprise the dance several times, changing the costuming and choreography each time. Her most famous performance was at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in 1912. Overton Walker created more than one vaudeville act as well, including Aida Overton Walker and the Abyssinian Girls and Aida Overton Walker and her Panama Girls.
Overton Walker’s final performance was in the summer of 1914 at Hammerstein’s, where she performed a variety of ballroom dances with her partner, J. Lackey Grant. Tragically, her career ended far too soon. She died at her home in Harlem when she was only thirty-four years old. Most reports say she died of a kidney infection.
Legacy and Impact on Musical Theater and Dance
This summary can give an indication of Overton Walker’s prodigious career during her short life, but it cannot show her influence on American musical theater and dance. She lived and created during a crucial time in America’s history. The 1890s and turn of the century was the period when nouveau riche industrialists were becoming the new American aristocracy, and the flood of immigrants from Europe was beginning to change America’s sense of identity. In terms of theater, the minstrel show, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and mass-produced pianos were the beginnings of American pop culture. It was the beginning of Jim Crow and the progressive movement, of “true womanhood” for white women and “noble womanhood” for black. The issues facing black Americans were new and complex. Into this environment came the first generation of African Americans born after emancipation.
Among many in the black middle and upper classes—understandably concerned about any potential to further denigrate the race—the behavior of the lower class was closely scrutinized and frequently criticized for its potential to cast African Americans in a bad light. References to slave dances and stories were viewed as something to retreat from, not to embrace, for they represented all that white America held in contempt about black America. Many black performers, in particular, were viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility, because they took part in the primary performance form of the day—and virtually the only form they were allowed—the minstrel show. It is not surprising that these newly invented all-black shows were the elite’s worst nightmare. They represented the adoption of the worst racist stereotypes and a public exhibition of low-class black behavior. At the same time, African American actors did not simply adopt the minstrel show; they made the form their own. They sold themselves to white audiences as more authentic than white performers in blackface. They also often added irony, satire, and double meanings to their song lyrics, so that while white audiences might interpret a song as a reiteration of black stereotyping, black audiences would receive an alternative message.
It was in this atmosphere that Aida Overton Walker rose to the top of the theatrical world. Crucial in the shift from the blackface minstrel show to the all-black musical revue, she was an actor, a singer, a comedian, a dancer, and a choreographer. Perhaps most importantly, through her art, she took on the most challenging issue in her field: how to be a working black female performer while at the same time positively representing women and African Americans. She never shrank from the challenge. Darker-skinned than many of the light-skinned chorus girls of the era, she was one of the few black women whose likeness appeared on Tin Pan Alley sheet music. As the most accomplished male impersonator of her day, she introduced a new type of role for black women to inhabit: a role beyond the minstrel show’s “tragic mulatto” or “mammy.”
Annemarie Bean included Overton Walker in her examination of male impersonation among early black female minstrels, who, she argued, subverted white minstrelsy in two ways: “They showed that their bodies were suited to playing both genders and to subverting the dominance of minstrelsy’s containment of the black female body as fixed, unmoving, and confined to two categories of mulatta or mama.” In addition, Bean pointed out that black male impersonators shifted the common minstrel character Jim Dandy from an uppity, ignorant buffoon into “a sophisticated ‘race man’ worthy of the upcoming Jazz Age.” Overton Walker, according to Richard Bruce Nugent, was possibly the first black male impersonator “and certainly the best.”
If Overton Walker was important as a singer, actor, and comedian, she was crucial as a dancer. In fact, David Krasner argued that Overton Walker should have a place among the pantheon of the “founding mothers” of modern dance, along with Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. In addition to her choreography in numerous Williams and Walker productions, as well as various vaudeville acts, Overton Walker brought a reinvented black dance form into the ballrooms, cabarets, and dance halls of America—the cakewalk.
The cakewalk represented all the conflicts, paradoxes, and ironies of the period. Originally an antebellum dance performed by slaves, some scholars believe it was essentially a combination of African forms with a brilliant parody of the formal European dancing of the “masters.” The dance was later adopted by white minstrels in blackface as a parody of blacks. The cakewalk was then readopted and reinvented by black performers at the turn of the century. As David Krasner succinctly wrote, “By the time the ragtime era began in 1896, the cakewalk was being performed by blacks imitating whites who were imitating blacks who were imitating whites.” In the final twist in the evolution of the dance, in the 1890s, the cakewalk became the rage for both whites and blacks. When it was adopted by white socialites, Overton Walker taught it to them. Yet she taught them her version of the dance, one carefully choreographed to limit any instances of vulgar behavior. She emphasized the joy and grace of the dance, as well as its black roots. She gave the dance dignity and removed from it any remnant of blackface buffoonery. It is arguable that, in so doing, Overton Walker created a climate for later black dance forms to become acceptable as well.
With Salome, Overton Walker took on the white world of modern dance. During the turn of the century, Salome had become a tremendous fad among white women dancers, so much so that in 1908 there were twenty-four different Salomes being performed in New York City alone. Overton Walker was the only black woman of the period to attempt it. An illustration of the importance of the dance was Oscar Hammerstein’s publicity surrounding Overton Walker’s performance in 1912. He kept her identity secret and let the public speculate which of the great dancers, including Lady Constance Robertson and Ruth St. Denis, would be the performer. When opening night revealed the star to be Aida Overton Walker, the audience was not disappointed.
However, as the only African American woman to dance Salome, Overton Walker had to approach her subject with care. Given the stereotype among whites that black women were oversexed and loose, and the resulting propriety of black middle class women, Overton Walker’s version of the dance was particularly modest, as was her costuming. David Krasner in his essay, Black Salome, quoted a Boston reviewer who wrote,
She does not rely solely upon the movements of the body, and her dress is not so conspicuous by its absence...she acts the role of “Salome” as much as she dances it. Her face is unusually mobile and she expresses through its muscles the emotions which the body is also interpreting, thus making the character of the biblical dancer life-like. (Krasner 2001, 201)
With both Salome and the cakewalk, Overton Walker challenged the prevailing stereotypes about black women. Her cakewalk brought respect for African American traditions into the white world. Her Salome reflected a similar philosophy. In it, she combined modern dance with traditional African forms. As a result, she entered the white world of high art and showed that African American forms were worthy of the term. Because she was careful to contain any possibility of vulgarity or lewdness in both dances, she also satisfied the concerns of the black bourgeois.
Another way in which Overton Walker countered stereotypes—about women, about African Americans, and about performers—was with her writing. It is unusually succinct and sometimes surprisingly farsighted. For example, Overton Walker was quoted by Helen Armstead-Johnson as saying “Unless we learn the lesson of self-appreciation and practice it, we shall spend our lives imitating other people and depreciating ourselves.”
In 1905, she took on the black elite in an essay for the Colored American entitled “Colored Men and Women on the Stage”:
Some of our so-called society people regard the Stage as a place to be ashamed of.... In this age we are all fighting the one problem—that is the color problem! I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people. The fact of the matter is this, that we come in contact with more white people in a week than other professional colored people in a year and more than some meet in a whole decade. (Krasner, 65)
The first black woman choreographer as well as the first black woman popular entertainer who can be described as an international star, Overton Walker worked in a world where she was constantly looking over her shoulder. Yet, even in this atmosphere, she changed the world of entertainment and dance. She attached the word “grace” to the term black actress. She challenged, on stage and with words, the prevailing stereotypes about women, blacks, and the theater. Throughout her career, she tried to accomplish a variety of impressive goals aimed at both blacks and whites, men and women. She wanted to bring respect for traditional black art to the white upper and middle class, to prove that a black woman could embrace and reinvent traditional white forms. She felt that as a result, more respect and opportunity would come to the race as a whole. She wanted to prove to the black middle and upper classes that authentic black music and dancing were not a disgrace to the race, and that black performers were professionals who deserved respect. She argued that even though she was an actor and dancer, she was a “race woman” and a practitioner of “noble womanhood” as well.
Bean, Annemarie. Black Minstrelsy and Double Inversion, Circa 1890. In African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader, edited by Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Bert Williams (1874-1922); George Walker (1873-1911); and Aida Overton Walker (1870-1914). Harlem 1900-1940: An African American Community, online exhibition portfolio from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. http://www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/Harlem/text/williams_walker.html.Find this resource:
Culm, John. John Culm’s Footlight Notes—Press Clippings of the Week—Aida Overton Walker in London, 1903—Week ending 8 February 2003. http://www.gabrielleray.150m.com/ArchivePressText2003/20030215.html.Find this resource:
Entertainer, Aida Overton Walker. The African American Registry Web site. http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2047/Entertainer_Aida_Overton_Walker.Find this resource:
Krasner, David. A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.Find this resource:
Krasner, David. Black Salome: Exoticism, Dance and Racial Myths. In African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader, edited by Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Krasner, David. Parody and Double Consciousness in the Language of Early Black Musical Theatre. African American Review, 29.2 (Summer 1995): 317.Find this resource:
Krasner, David. Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895-1910. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Krasner, David. Rewriting the Body: Aida Overton Walker and the Social Formation of Cakewalking. Theatre Survey 37 (November 1996): 66-92.Find this resource:
Morgan, Thomas L. Cecil Mack (R. C. McPherson). Jazz Roots Web site. http://www.jass.com/cmack.html.Find this resource:
Newman, Richard. The Brightest Star: Aida Overton-Walker in the Age of Ragtime and Cakewalk. Prospects: An Annual Journal of American Cultural Studies 18 (1993): 465-481.Find this resource:
Smith, Eric Ledell. Aida Overton Walker: Pioneer African American Dancer and Choreographer. SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 8.2 (Fall 1994): 36.Find this resource: