Aida Overton Walker
Aida was one of many groundbreaking performers who revolutionized blackness onstage in the early 20th century.
She purposefully and continuously pushed against stereotypes to forge a comedy career on her own terms.
In the process, she became a SUPERSTAR.
The NY Dramatic Mirror hailed her as “the best Negro comedienne of today.”
The Chicago Defender called her “the most fascinating and vivacious female comedy actress the Negro race has ever produced.”
Aida was a quintuple threat.
She was an ACTRESS.
She was a COMEDIAN.
She was a singer, dancer AND choreographer.
And DEAR GOD, every photo of her is an absolute gem,
Aida knew darn well that her visibility as an actress gave her an opportunity to change hearts and minds about race.
As she wrote in 1905: “Our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people.”
Everything she does in her career reflects her belief that she can and should use her position to affect positive change.
Here are just a few examples.
Aida was part of one of the first all-black minstrel-vaudeville troupes, along with Bert Williams and her husband George Walker.
Audiences would have expected her to perform stereotypical blackface roles, but she chose instead to create uplifting representations of black women.
Aida pushed her troupe to transition from minstrelsy/vaudeville to full-length musical comedy.
She was thought to be the first black female choreographer of a Broadway show, 1898’s Senegambian Carnival.
Aida also reclaimed the Cakewalk, a dance craze that was thought to originate with enslaved people mimicking their white owners, which then became a favorite of white minstrels.
Horrifying cultural appropriation, anyone?
Aida smartly marketed herself as the authentic Queen of the Cakewalk—dancing, choreographing and making money teaching the dance to white people.
She is credited with transforming it from often vulgar comedy into a sophisticated and witty dance form, that even included performing complicated dance steps with a bucket of water on her head.
She also headlined as "Salome" at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater in one of the most talked-about performances of the year.
There’s so much more to Aida’s story, but she was amazing.
She performed comedy without stereotypes.
She overcame society’s expectations of a black woman onstage.
She used choreography to tell a story.
She pushed her collaborators in the direction of her artistic vision.
She attracted HUGE audiences.
She was an international superstar.
Sadly, Aida died of sudden kidney failure at the age of 34.
Obituaries opined that Aida, already a star, had not yet even reached the height of her career.