Aida Overton Walker broke stereotypes of the Victorian Era Stage both as an African American and as a female musical performer. In vaudeville and musical theater, she was praised by critics and loved by audiences. As a result, she achieved steady financial success throughout her career.
She regularly performed in white venues in New York, an achievement few African-American entertainers of the Victorian Era could claim. In her later career, her performance of a classical dance on a concert stage shared by white actors was highly controversial, but received with great acclaim. Like so many famous women in history, Aida Overton Walker broke the rules along with the stereotypes.
Aida Overton was born in New York City on Valentine’s Day 1880. She began her career at the age of fifteen with John William Isham’s Octoroons, one of the most successful black touring groups of the time. It was 1895, just five years after Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland returned from their race around the world.
In 1896, Aida Overton joined the Black Patti Troubadours, a musical and acrobatic act with highly trained classical singers and dancers, jugglers and comedians. Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, an African-American soprano ran the highly successful troupe. Her own repertoire included grand and light opera, as well as popular music.
Jones was undoubtedly a great role model for Aida Overton. Aside from running her own financially successful troupe, she paved the way for African-American entertainers. She had many “firsts” in her career. Among them, in June of 1892, she became the first African-American to sing at the Music Hall, renamed as Carnegie Hall the following year.
Many of The Black Patti Troubadour performers went on to become famous, including the team of Jack Walker and Bert Williams. Williams was later considered one of the greatest entertainers of Vaudeville and one of the most popular comedians of his time. He was also the best-selling black recording artist before 1920.
While performing with The Black Patti Troubadours, Aida Overton fell in love with George Walker. Within a year, they were married. They soon became one of the most admired and elegant couples in entertainment.
Bert Williams and George Walker changed African-American entertainment and theater of their time with their talent and creativity. In the Victorian Era when racial inequality and stereotyping were commonplace, they did much to push back racial barriers. Although their genre was comedy, Williams & Walker insisted on producing quality theatre. Their sets, costumes, lighting and elaborate props were as extravagant as those in the white theaters.
In 1898, Aida Overton joined their team. With the addition of her extraordinary talents as a choreographer and performer, they hit one success after another. She appeared in all of their hit shows including:
Like Bert Williams and George Walker, she considered the representation of refined African Americans as important political work. She refused to play stereotypes onstage, like the image of the plump plantation mammy who was quick to serve her master.
In The Sons of Ham, her rendition of Hannah from Savannah won critical acclaim for her superior vocal ability and acting skills. As with all her roles, she presented a strong and positive image of black women.
In Dahomey toured England to great critical success for nearly two years. One of their numbers featured the Cakewalk, which had its origins in slavery of the southern plantations. Slaves would line up to form an aisle down which each couple would take their turn at a high-stepping promenade to mock their masters. The parody featured exaggerated bowing, back bends, high kicking and other fancy foot work. The master would sit in judgment. The best couple won a cake.
With their usual flair, the Walkers choreographed an amazing rendition of the Cakewalk. They were known for walking a straight line with buckets of water on their heads, all while executing difficult dance steps. Aida Overton became known as The Queen of the Cakewalk. While on tour, British society women invited her to their homes for private Cakewalk lessons.
After a decade of success with the Williams and Walker Company, George Walker collapsed on tour with Bandanna Land. He died at the age of 38.
According to Wells Thorne in Black Acts, most accounts of Aida Overton Walker’s career end with her husband’s death. In truth, she had many more successes after she was widowed.
“Aida performed the drag number “Bon Bon Buddy,” originally popularized by George Walker in Bandana Land. When George fell ill and Aida assumed his role in the show, many newspapers had printed cartoons of Aida dressed in the costume George wore for his signature song, “Bon Bon Buddy.” Her rendition proved so popular that Aida retained the song (and the costume) as a much-beloved part of her vaudeville act.”
Aida Overton Walker’s solo career took off with her role in His Honor the Barber in 1909 with the Smart Set Company.
“Critic Sylvester Russell commented that Aida’s tour with the Smart Set Company “demonstrated that she [is] the dominant feature of the [show] and the box office drawing attraction. Without her last season there would have been no box office attraction” Thorne
“The New York Dramatic Mirror said that Aida Overton Walker was the best Negro comedienne of her day.” Thorne
In 1912, Aida Overton Walker performed her interpretation of the “Salome” dance at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre. She had first performed her dance in Bandana Land in 1908. Her dance was well received in the context of the all-black show. But a black woman performing a classical dance on a concert stage shared by white actors was highly controversial.
“She took her responsibility to pave the way for African-American entertainers seriously. Aida Overton Walker “strove to combat the pernicious stereotype that African-American women in general, and black actresses in particular, were immoral and oversexed.” Thorne
As a result, she chose to downplay the sexual overtones of the dance, instead emphasizing Salome’s emotional state in her choreography. In spite of any opposition to her inclusion on a white stage, her engagement was extended from one week to three.
Aida Overton Walker followed in the footsteps of her early role model, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones. She started her own vaudeville troupe of dancing girls, of which she was leader and head choreographer.
As evidence of her successful performance at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater, a space previously restricted to white entertainers, her troupe performed on that stage the following year. Critics and audiences loved her and her new troupe. Their only criticism was that she was not on stage enough. She left her audiences wanting more.
Aida Overton Walker died in 1914, at the age of 34.
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