Aida Overton Walker
The Later Years of Aida Overton Walker; 1911–1914
Aida Overton Walker (1880–1914), actress, singer, dancer and choreographer, was arguably the most famous female African-American performer of the early 20th century. She was a prominent figure in the field of black musical theater at a time when the genre was emerging from its roots in minstrelsy and vaudeville and had just begun to develop into a fully realized theatrical form. Her early career was characterized by her long and fruitful period of collaboration with Bert Williams and George Walker, the dominant black vaudeville/musical comedy team of the era. Around the time of Aida and George’s marriage in 1899, Williams and Walker began to concentrate on writing and performing full-length musicals rather than stand-alone songs and sketches in the vaudeville tradition. Aida Overton Walker would go on to perform in all the Williams and Walker musicals and ultimately adopt the role of choreographer for their theater troupe.
She first gained national attention in 1900, when her performance of “Miss Hannah from Savannah” in the show Sons of Ham led the song to become an instant smash hit. For the next ten years, Aida would be known primarily for her work in musical theater, as she, George, and Bert continued to create wildly successful shows such as In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandana Land (1908). Aida Walker’s choreography appeared in all three of these productions, as well as in Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson’s popular musical The Red Moon (1909). The era of the Williams and Walker musicals came to an end with Bandana Land, as George Walker took ill midway through the show’s run in 1909 and passed away in 1911. At the time of George’s death, Bert Williams, George Walker and Aida Overton Walker were undoubtedly, as described by the Boston Guardian, “the most popular trio of colored actors in the world”.
Aida Walker outlived her husband by three years. These last years of her career, although artistically productive and financially successful, have been largely ignored by scholars. In The Last “Darky”, Louis Chude-Sokei takes great pains to stress that Aida was not merely an accessory to the creative duo of Williams and Walker, but a star in her own right. His summary of the events surrounding George Walker’s death, however, would have the reader believe that Aida, or at least Aida’s career, died with her husband: “So first George Walker died, then Ada Overton Walker, whose death effectively ended the troupe.” Karen Sotiropoulos’ Staging Race contains a wealth of information on Aida Walker, but with the exception of a brief yet insightful discussion of her 1912 performance of the Salome dance at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, only mentions her work on the Williams and Walker shows.
Other authors devote a sentence or two to Aida Walker’s later work, as if to suggest that her accomplishments during the last years of her career did not merit further attention. In Babylon Girls, Jayna Brown writes, “Overton had her own company through the 1910s after the deaths of her husband and her close colleague Bob Cole. Up until August 1914, two months before she died, Overton was performing “modern society dances” in white variety theaters around New York.” This piece of information, buried in the midst of a detailed analysis of the Salome dance as it was performed in Bandana Land, is intriguing in its brevity. With two sentences, Brown has presented an entirely different account of Aida Overton Walker’s last years than that implied by Chude-Sokei or Sotiropoulos. Not only did Aida Walker remain active in the theater, she was regularly performing in white venues in New York — an achievement that none of her contemporary African-American entertainers, with the exception of the legendary Bert Williams, could claim to have accomplished.
Although Aida Walker originally became famous through her partnership with her husband and Bert Williams, her popularity was not diminished in the years following George Walker’s death and the dissolution of the Williams and Walker troupe. Instead, evidence from contemporary newspapers suggests that her later work, first as a member of the Smart Set Company and subsequently as leader of her own vaudeville company, was extremely well received. Her performances were not only critically acclaimed but also beloved by audiences, who flocked to the theater in droves when Aida Walker came to town. When she was touring the country, her stay in a particular city was regularly extended by popular demand.[9, 10] Thus, it is apparent that, rather than fading from the public eye, Aida Walker firmly maintained her position as the reigning female talent in black vaudeville and musical theater after 1911. At the time of her death in 1914, she was widely mourned as having passed away before reaching the zenith of her career.
Aida Overton Walker’s first theatrical endeavor after her husband’s death, and the final full-length musical of her career, was the Smart Set Company’s His Honor the Barber (1911). By this point in time, the number of touring theatrical companies in the country had been in decline for several years. All touring companies had been affected by high transportation costs and the growing popularity of the movies, but the black theater community was simultaneously suffering from the loss of several of its most prominent members, not the least of whom was the late George Walker. The largest of the few black touring companies active between 1910 and 1920 was the Smart Set Company. When Aida Walker joined the company for His Honor the Barber, she was billed as a supporting actress alongside director and star S. H. Dudley; however, the press would remember Dudley and Walker as co-stars.[14, 15] Indeed, according to the reviewers, Aida’s performance was considered the highlight of the show. 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”.
The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote: “. . . Miss Walker, as is well known, is the best Negro comedienne today. . . . [H]er impersonation of a Negro ‘chappie’ . . . is the real hit of the play”. According to the Chicago Defender, “All the people who ventured out to see . . . the Smart Set Company were drawn there to see Mrs. Walker, the most fascinating and vivacious female comedy actress the Negro race has ever produced. Her male specialty, “Thats why they call me shine” [sic] held the audiences spellbound. . . . Certainly there are no other stars in the Smart Set Company, while she is on the stage”. Both of these reviews made special mention of Aida Walker’s performances in male attire. Such drag numbers were a specialty of Aida’s — she had taken over her ill husband’s role in Bandana Land, and was considered to be the only person who could accurately imitate him.
In vaudeville as in musical theater, Aida was both a financial success and a darling of the critics. At the end of Sylvester Russell’s discussion of Aida Walker’s tour with the Smart Set Company, he added: “The public expects to see Mrs. Walker as a single star next season and will be anxious to support her because she is a superior artist and that of itself is strong enough to sustain her”. Indeed, the following season saw the formation of Aida Overton Walker’s own vaudeville company. The Broad Axe reported in September of 1911: “Aida Overton Walker is the talk of the big time she is keeping pace with Bert Williams and is featured on all bills and getting the top vaudeville figures [sic]”. “Keeping pace with Bert Williams” was no mean feat, as Williams was otherwise unrivaled among the black theatrical community in prestige, popularity and income. Her prominent place on the bills is also indicative of a high degree of star power — Bert Williams never received top billing until the fall of 1914.
Aida Walker’s continued popularity after the dissolution of the Williams and Walker troupe did not go unnoticed by the press. Reviewers attending her shows remarked upon the enthusiasm of the audience and reported that the quality of Aida’s performances on the vaudeville circuit equaled or exceeded that of her earlier work. An article in the Hartford Courant from October of 1911 asserted that “Miss Walker is the same clever singer and graceful dancer as ever, her first dance showing her at her very best”. Sylvester Russell wrote of a 1912 performance at the Majestic in Chicago, “When Aida Overton Walker . . . tipped out upon the stage, it was the same big reception she had often received in the Williams and Walker Company”. Russell went on to note, “Not only was Mrs. Walker’s work most effective in “Lovie Dear” . . . her male creation was so clever and natural of the style of her husband that the audience went wild with enthusiasm”.
In 1912, it was announced that Aida Overton Walker would perform her interpretation of the “Salome” dance at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre. This dance, which originally premiered in Bandana Land (1908), was Aida’s response to the “Salomania” craze that had swept through the white vaudeville circuit in 1907. This nationwide fascination with all things Salome began in 1907, when the Metropolitan Opera House shut down Richard Strauss’ opera Salome after a single performance. Enterprising vaudevillians, who knew a good thing when they saw it, were drawn like flies to the same “moral stench” that had so appalled the Metropolitan Opera’s board of directors. Many white dancers, quick to capitalize on the American public’s appetite for the risqué, made a name for themselves through their own sexually charged adaptations of the “dance of the seven veils”. “By claiming the dance that by 1908 had become a signature for a new generation of modernizing white women,” writes Jayna Brown, “Overton was insisting that she be respected as an artist and choreographer.”
Aida Overton Walker’s adaptation of the Salome dance was very different from the titillating performances of the countless white actresses who had previously portrayed the Biblical character — and indeed, from Walker’s own perspective, it had to be. She was very much aware of the potential impact the performing arts could have on race relations, having written in a 1905 article for Colored American, “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.” Through her work, Walker strove to combat the pernicious stereotype that African-American women in general, and black actresses in particular, were immoral and oversexed. “I am aware of the fact that many well-meaning people dislike stage life, especially our women,” wrote Walker. “On that point I would say, a woman does not lose her dignity . . . when she enters stage life”.
For Walker, performing Salome according to the popular interpretation of the role — as a figure that “epitomized the inherent sensuality and, according to some, perversity of women” — was out of the question. Thus, she downplayed the erotic aspects of the Salome dance, beginning with the costume — a cartoon of Walker in the New York World was accompanied by the pithy comment that “she dances better than some of the Salomes that wear fewer clothes”. Instead, Walker chose to emphasize the dramatic elements of the performance, coordinating her movements and expressions in order to convey the thoughts and emotions of the Salome character. The result was a technically innovative dance that “transformed the role of a highly sexualized dancer . . . into a dramatic achievement”.
Although Aida Walker’s choreography had been well received within the context of the all-black Bandana Land, the performance of classical dance by a black woman on a concert stage shared by white actors was considered controversial and even shocking. Certain types of so-called “high” art, such as dramatic theater and classical dance, were at the time off-limits to African-Americans, who were thought to be better suited to “lower” entertainments such as comedy and ragtime. By portraying Salome as a dramatic character, Aida Walker aspired to invoke the dance’s lofty origins in order to “help lift the artistry of black female performers from the comedy of vaudeville to the drama of opera.” The New York Tribune described Walker’s upcoming performance at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre as “the first time that a dusky beauty has dared to brave ART (fully capitalised) in his lair along Broadway”. Though many were opposed to Walker’s inclusion, the ultimate success of the production “was clearly shown at the box office”, as “after her first performance her engagement was extended from one to three weeks”. Thus, in addition to her many prior achievements, Aida Overton Walker became the first black woman “that has ever been accepted as a danseuse of the classics”.
The success of Aida Walker’s performance at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater, a space previously restricted to white entertainers, was evidenced by the fact that she was once again welcomed to Hammerstein’s the following year. This time, she did not perform as a solo artist but as the leader and choreographer of her vaudeville troupe of dancing girls. As in many of her most successful vaudeville acts, 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’s final engagement outside of New York took place later that year, a tour ending at the Pekin Theatre in Chicago. “One of Miss Walker’s ambitions has been to produce her own show”, reported the Chicago Defender, “and for this special engagement she has surrounded herself with a large number of clever, pretty girls of sweet voices and nimble of feet”. The same article noted that the performances would feature “an entirely new and novel repertoire,” and anticipated they would be well attended (advising readers, “Secure seats in advance and avoid the rush”). A subsequent article on the performances at the Pekin Theatre commented, “Here were arrayed the cream of vaudevillians, presenting the latest and best in their line, headed by the divine Aida. . . . There is but one thing that is a bit disappointing, and that is, she doesn’t appear often enough on the bill”. Thus, even in her final appearances on stage, Aida Walker always left the audience wanting more.
In his review of the production, Alfred Anderson of the Chicago Defender described Aida Overton Walker as the pinnacle of theatrical achievement, “the Last Word in the realms of our dramatic art”. He remarked that her outstanding talent had not faded over the years: “How her art endures and passes the acid test of changing moods and fickle calls! How still and quite alone she passes in revue and commands our admiration and highest praise”. Anderson’s concluding note indicates that the earlier article’s recommendation to buy tickets early was a wise one, as “the theater turned people away nightly, and the demand was so great that another week will see Miss Walker here”. Indeed, the show was, at the time, “considered the most popular and the biggest financial success ever produced in Chicago from private sources”.
Perhaps the most apparent, as well as the most sobering, indication of Aida Overton Walker’s continued success and popularity from 1911 onwards is the recurring sentiment, expressed in many of her obituaries, that she died before reaching the height of her career. “[S]he died young before her star had reached its zenith,” read one statement in the Chicago Defender. An article published two weeks after her death in New York at the age of 34, titled “Race Still Mourns for Aida Overton-Walker”, reflected: “She had not passed on life’s highway the stone that marks the highest point of her achievement, but being weary for a moment she laid down by the wayside to rest . . .” Her primary obituary in the Chicago Defender included a similar statement that Aida Walker had died before passing out of “the zenith of life”. At the time of her death, asserted the Philadelphia Tribune, Aida remained “in a class by herself . . . second to none in her line of work”.
“Through all of the obstacles that confronted her and the misfortunes that befell her, success always crowned her efforts”, wrote N. H. Jefferson on Aida Overton Walker. Evidence from periodicals suggests that Jefferson’s statement held equally true for the later years of Aida’s career as it did for her earlier work. Despite the death of George Walker and the dissolution of the Williams and Walker troupe, Aida Walker did not fade from the public eye. Rather, she enjoyed a successful career and may have even increased in fame, first as a member of the Smart Set Company and later as a solo performer, choreographer and head of her own vaudeville troupe.
Anderson, Alfred. “Aida Overton Walker Extends Engagement a Week Longer.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 8, 1913.
Austin, James. “The Stage: Doings of the Profession On and Off the Boards. Aida Overton Walker in Male Attire at Hammersten’s Theatre.” Philadelphia Tribune, Feb. 8, 1913.
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, 171–191. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001.
Brown, Jayna. Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
Charters, Ann. Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970.
Chude-Sokei, Louis. The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Jefferson, N. H. “Aida Overton-Walker is Dead.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 17, 1914.
Jefferson, W. H. “Race Still Mourns for Aida Overton-Walker.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 31, 1914.
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, 192–211. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001.
Riis, Thomas L. Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890–1915. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Russell, Sylvester. “Musical and Dramatic: Aida Overton Walker.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), May 20, 1911.
Russell, Sylvester. “Musical and Dramatic, Chicago Weekly Review: Aida Overton Walker at the Majestic.” Freeman (Indianapolis, IN), Jun. 22, 1912.
Sotiropoulos, Karen. Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Walker, Aida Overton. “Colored Men and Women on the American Stage.” Colored American Magazine, October 1905.
Woll, Allen L. Dictionary of the Black Theatre: Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Selected Harlem Theatre. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983.
“Aida Overton-Walker.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 24, 1914.
“Aida Overton Walker.” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct. 17, 1914.
“Aida Overton Walker & Co.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 8, 1913.
“Aida Overton Walker at Webers.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Mar. 4, 1911.
“Aida Walker as Salome.” New York Tribune, Jul. 29, 1912.
“Musical and Dramatic: Aida Overton Walker at the Pekin Theatre.” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 1, 1913.
“National and Local Theatrical and Stage Notes.” Broad Axe (Chicago, IL), Sep. 30, 1911.
“Poli’s Theater: Singing and Dancing by Aida Overton Walker and Her Company.” Hartford Courant, Oct. 10, 1911.
1 Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 180. back to text
2 Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch, A History of African American Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 161. back to text
3 Hill and Hatch, 171. back to text
4 Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 24. back to text
5 Ibid. back to text
6 Karen Sotiropoulos, Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 176–177. back to text
7 Brown, 186. back to text
8 Ann Charters, Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), 126. back to text
9 Alfred Anderson, “Aida Overton Walker Extends Engagement a Week Longer,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 8, 1913. back to text
10 “Musical and Dramatic: Aida Overton Walker at the Pekin Theatre,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 1, 1913. back to text
11 Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890–1915 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 160. back to text
12 Riis, 161. back to text
13 Ibid. back to text
14 “The Peerless Actress, Aida Overton Walker Answers Death Summons,” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct. 17, 1914. back to text
15 Allen L. Woll, Dictionary of the Black Theatre: Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Selected Harlem Theatre (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983), 78. back to text
16 Sylvester Russell, “Musical and Dramatic: Aida Overton Walker,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), May 20, 1911. back to text
17 Woll, ibid. back to text
18 “Aida Overton Walker at Webers,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Mar. 4, 1911. back to text
19 “Aida Overton Walker,” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct. 17, 1914. back to text
20 Sylvester Russell, “Musical and Dramatic: Aida Overton Walker,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), May 20, 1911. back to text
21 “National and Local Theatrical and Stage Notes,” Broad Axe (Chicago, IL), Sep. 30, 1911. back to text
22 Charters, ibid. back to text
23 Ibid. back to text
24 “Poli’s Theater: Singing and Dancing by Aida Overton Walker and Her Company,” Hartford Courant, Oct. 10, 1911. back to text
25 Sylvester Russell, “Musical and Dramatic, Chicago Weekly Review: Aida Overton Walker at the Majestic,” Freeman (Indianapolis, IN), Jun. 22, 1912. back to text
26 Ibid. back to text
27 Sotiropoulos, 176. back to text
28 Ibid. back to text
29 Brown, 180–181. back to text
30 Aida Overton Walker, “Colored Men and Women on the American Stage,” Colored American Magazine, October 1905, 571–575. back to text
31 Walker, 574. back to text
32 David Krasner, “Black Salome: Exoticism, Dance, and Racial Myths,” in African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader, ed. Harry J. Elam, Jr. and David Krasner (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001), 200. back to text
33 Krasner, 202. back to text
34 Krasner, 201. back to text
35 Sotiropoulos, ibid. back to text
36 Sotiropoulos, 177, 216. back to text
37 Sotiropoulos, 176. back to text
38 “Aida Walker as Salome,” New York Tribune, Jul. 29, 1912. back to text
39 “Musical and Dramatic: Aida Overton Walker at the Pekin Theatre,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 1, 1913. back to text
40 Ibid. back to text
41 James Austin, “The Stage: Doings of the Profession On and Off the Boards. Aida Overton Walker in Male Attire at Hammersten’s Theatre,” Philadelphia Tribune, Feb. 8, 1913. back to text
42 Ibid. back to text
43 Ibid. back to text
44 Charters, 96. back to text
45 Annemarie Bean, “Black Minstrelsy and Double Inversion, Circa 1890,” in African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader, ed. Harry J. Elam, Jr. and David Krasner (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001), 186. back to text
46 N. H. Jefferson, “Aida Overton-Walker is Dead,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 17, 1914. back to text
47 “Musical and Dramatic: Aida Overton Walker at the Pekin Theatre,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 1, 1913. back to text
48 Ibid. back to text
49 “Aida Overton Walker & Co,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 8, 1913. back to text
50 Alfred Anderson, “Aida Overton Walker Extends Engagement a Week Longer,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Nov. 8, 1913. back to text
51 Ibid. back to text
52 Ibid. back to text
53 N. H. Jefferson, “Aida Overton-Walker is Dead,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 17, 1914. back to text
54 “Aida Overton-Walker,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 24, 1914. back to text
55 W. H. Jefferson, “Race Still Mourns for Aida Overton-Walker,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 31, 1914. back to text
56 N. H. Jefferson, “Aida Overton-Walker is Dead,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 17, 1914. back to text
57 “Aida Overton Walker,” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct. 17, 1914. back to text
58 N. H. Jefferson, “Aida Overton-Walker is Dead,” Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), Oct. 17, 1914. back to text