RMRL Project #2
Bert Williams was born November 10, 1874, Egbert Austin Williams. Theatre at this time was dominated by white directors, writers, and actors. Williams became famous on the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. At the time he was often the only black actor on stage, one of his better-known performances being in England for King Edward VII in 1904.
Some people may look at Bert and feel as though he was nothing more than a sellout of sorts. Because of the social time, Williams would perform in black face like his white counterparts, the overdone features and all. Although this fact may seem counterproductive to black people gaining a footing in theatre, Williams made a different kind of impact. While in said blackface he was able to impact an audience better than any of the white actors there. Williams didn’t put on a show that made fun of black people but rather used universal humor that all members of the audience might find themselves experiencing. Williams took what was already accepted and made it work him in a way that showed that black men could be just as popular if not more so than white men in the world of vaudeville. He even used blackface to show just how different he was from the men he performed alongside.
Williams faced constant discrimination both on and off the stage. On the stage, white performers would complain about being alongside him or they would refuse to share the stage entirely. In the hotels that Williams would perform he would be stopped from using the elevator or eating in the same areas as the white performers and patrons. Williams never stopped facing discrimination throughout life despite his success as a performer.
Later in life he landed a role as a star in The Ziegfield Follies (1910). He performed with them for almost all his remaining career. In his time doing this he broke another color line by becoming the first black man to top the bill at New York City’s Palace (1918). Williams also appeared in the movie A Natural Born Gambler in 1916. Williams died in 1922 after collapsing on stage during a touring show of Under the Bamboo Tree.
Alexandra Billings was born March 28, 1962. Billings was born in Illinois in a male’s body, she began her transition in 1980 at around 17 years old. Since then, she has been paving a way for herself as a transgender actress in theatre.
Most recently she landed a role in Wicked as Madame Morrible in 2019. This makes her the first transgender person to be cast in the Wicked production on Broadway.
Wicked has been a long running Broadway show since it opened there on October 30, 2003. In the 16 years of it being open it didn’t have even one openly transgender cast member. Since the show is a staple on Broadway, it means a lot to have Billings take the stage, especially in a name role.
Before taking to Broadway, she became the second openly transgender woman to play a transgender character on TV in a role for the TV movie Romy and Michele: In the Beginning. She also is known for playing a re-occurring character in the Amazon TV series Transparent, she has also played transgender roles in ER, Eli Stone, How to Get Away with Murder, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Conners. Billings playing these roles along with other transgender actresses over the last several years have given important representation for the trans community in media which is the way most of society gets exposure to new information.
I believe that Billings gaining a role in Wicked will make a further impact on the casting of Broadway shows. Transgender people should be given the same opportunities for roles as everyone else and we are starting to see that more and more.
Vinnette Carroll born March 11. 1922 was the first African American woman to direct a show on Broadway. Before her life on the stage, Carroll studied clinical psychology at New York University, receiving her B.A. in 1944 and her M.A. in 1946. Following this she worked as a clinician for a period before making her professional debut in 1948.
Carroll began as an actress, winning her first award, an Obie Award, in 1962 for her role in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Carroll also won an Emmy Award for her TV show Beyond the Blues.
Carroll’s first written Broadway show was Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope in 1972. Carroll was nominated for four Tony Awards for this production. Her 1976 Broadway show Your Arms Too Short to Box with God also got nominated for four Tony Awards.
As her career progressed Carroll was able to found the Urban Arts Corps (renamed the Urban Arts Theater in 1980) where children in urban areas were given the opportunity to learns the arts that Carroll spent she life loving. Carroll continued to create and teach until her death on November 5, 2002, aged 80.
Carroll gained recognition in and got to work in positions that prior to her were “for men”. Not only did she help pave the way for black people but also for women in theatre, showing how creative, bright and talented they can truly be.
I chose to investigate those who help clear the way for minorities in the performing arts because of American Moor. This play gives an insight into how a black man is treated and given roles in the performing arts in a digestible way, which is something I love about the arts.
I took a course here at PSU called “Theatre for Social Change” which was about exactly what it sounds like, how theatre can promote social change in our world. I believe that American Moor is an example of a show created for social understanding and change. So, when it came to project two, I originally thought that perhaps other shows that have done this should be my focus, but instead I chose to focus on individuals that refused to be put in a box and told what they are.
Theatre is widely considered to be an accepting environment where all people can be as they are and be excepted, but this has only been the case for a short period of time, and I would argue there are still prejudices and issues within the world of performing arts. In some of the oldest forms of theatre we see, women were not even allowed perform, it was only men. This can be seen in things such as ancient Greek and Roman plays. When women were allowed in theatre, they, along with their male counterparts were considered lowly people, there only for the entertainment of others. As the years progressed, we saw playwrights being honored while the performers were still seen as trash, the women seen as lose. Any “important positions” were given to white men, for a very long time. As stated above, the first a black man was given any recognition was in the late 1800s, early 1900s and even then, he was not given riches or a good title, people still treated him harshly. It is sad to see but still true. Minorities are still made to work harder than their straight cis white male counterparts to get the same roles in theatre. Typecasting can be belittling depending on the role that is up for grabs.
Thankfully we starting to see a shift in this on both the stage and in theatre with shows such as Hamilton and Bridgeton, both of which are based in a time where BIPOC were not seen as equals, yet the casting reflects all shades of skin and sexual background without discrimination. I love seeing this, and I love seeing how people are responding so positively to these new endeavors, but I think it is important to understand that although we’ve come far, we’ve a lot farther to go and not all that long ago (within the last 100 years) minorities were still fighting for their seat at the performing arts table.
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