Aida Overton Walker, “Actor Lady”: Unveiling Race and Gender in African American Performance Motifs, 1900-1912

Small, Jennafer (2016) Aida Overton Walker, “Actor Lady”: Unveiling Race and Gender in African American Performance Motifs, 1900-1912. Masters thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis will examine the ways in which African American actress and dancer Aida Overton Walker navigated transatlantic racial and gendered codes within her theatrical performances. I will analyse relevant historical and cultural paradigms of the early twentieth century in order to situate her work within its context, in order to explore the specific racial and gendered imaginaries which informed the creation – and reception - of her work. This thesis, therefore, examines transatlantic colonialism, the Black Atlantic, the history and formation of American theatrical convention, the laws of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation, the censorship of female bodies, and the expropriation of black culture in the early twentieth century.
A body of criticism has emerged in the study of the Black Atlantic, which have provided crucial theoretical material for an examination of Walker’s performances, including the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, David Krasner, Karen Sotiropoulos, Susan A. Glenn, Daphne Brooks and Jayna Brown. I will explore such critical texts alongside primary material, including the scripts and song sheets for In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy (1902), and Sons of Ham (1901).
The black female performer in musical comedy at the turn of the twentieth century, I argue, actually occupies a space more complex than that of the male black performer, both veiled and unveiled, comedic yet sexualised and exploited. Not only is the black female performer compelled by racial codes to operate behind a veil of racialized comedy, she must operate behind a veil of sexualisation attempting to assert her body in the face of narratives that situate her as bound by white codes of public propriety and, also, as an exoticized black woman, already in contravention of those codes.

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