A new musical revue that made its debut in 1890 changed the way that black Americans were portrayed and affected modern entertainment for generations. Titled The Creole Show, the program featured an all-black cast and showcased for the first time African Americans in a dignified way. For a quarter of a century following the Civil War, free or freed African American entertainers had been limited to playing demeaning, stereotyped parts in minstrel shows, but this new style of show offered opportunities to many black entertainers, gave birth to a series of all-black shows and introduced a new form of music, ragtime.
The Creole Show, and others productions in a similar style that were to follow, had its roots in both minstrel shows and a homegrown entertainment practiced by slaves, called the cakewalk. The term “minstrel” takes its name from the traveling troupes of musicians and actors common in Europe from medieval times, but in the American context it was used to describe shows in which white actors, wearing “blackface” (black makeup, sometimes just soot from burned cork) sang, told jokes and put on satiric skits. Beginning with the Virginia Minstrels troupe, introduced and soon famous in New York City in 1843, the shows were harshly racist – portraying black people as ignorant and buffoonish – but also lampooned upper-class white people. The success of the Virginia Minstrels inspired many imitating groups, creating a new genre of blackface minstrel shows. These toured throughout the United States, although primarily in the North.
Meanwhile, in the pre-Civil War South, another form of indigenous American entertainment had taken root. In the slave quarters of many larger plantations, slaves would sometimes be allowed by their owners to hold entertainments in the evenings and on holidays. These parties featured food, instrumental music (this was the source of the banjo as an instrument), singing and dancing. The highlight of these dances, often attended by the slaveholding plantation owners themselves, would be the “cakewalk” or “chalkwalk.” This was a procession of couples dressed in their best clothing (sometimes including hand-me-downs from the white families), following a chalked line on the dance floor. The audience (or sometimes the slaveholder) would vote on the couple which showed the highest degree of deportment and style. The term “cakewalk” is taken from the prize, often a cake, given to the winning couple. It is interesting to note that many former slaves, able to speak candidly after they were freed from slavery following the Civil War, admitted that the cakewalk was meant to sharply satirize the style of the white owners by overly exaggerating their manners – and this was done right in front of the slave owners, without them realizing that they were being mocked!
After the Civil War, the blackface minstrel show became more popular than ever before. Touring cities, towns and even small villages throughout the country, troupes were also featured on board river boats on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The format of crude, racist songs, jokes, exaggerated speeches and satirical plays continued the set form dating to the 1840s. One of the great changes in the troupes from the 1870s onward, however, was that the companies also began to include African American entertainers who, like their white counterparts, often wore blackface over their own skin to appear even darker.
There were dozens of blackface minstrel troupes that were formed during the late 19th century, sometimes remaining in existence for only a season or two before being disbanded. The most famous producer and manager of minstrel shows was a white man from Pennsylvania named Sam T. Jack. From 1880, until his death in 1899, Sam T. Jack operated a series of minstrel groups with different casts and constantly changing names. The Forty Thieves Company, Big Burlesque Company, French Spy Company and, in the 1890s, Sam T. Jack’s Creole Burlesque Company toured throughout the country. In the terminology of the time, “burlesque” implied humorous satire, not the strip-tease that the world later came to mean. Also, while some of the entertainers in Sam T. Jack’s shows were indeed mixed-race Creole people from Louisiana, most of the cast were black Americans without French, Spanish or Native American heritage.
Sam T. Jack made a sudden break with the now-common (and over-done) minstrel show format by producing a new program titled The Creole Show. This show used a vaudeville format (a variety of short entertainment acts), mixed with the black minstrel style. Most importantly, the show incorporated beautiful, well-dressed African American women who were presented in dignified acts reminiscent of the cakewalk tradition. Combining humor with the exotic appeal of “Creole” women (whether they were truly Creole or not) made the show an instant success. The Creole Show opened in New York City in 1890, starring Sam Lucas, a black entertainer from Ohio with long experience on the minstrel show circuit and a member of the Creole Burlesque Company troupe. Another black actor and comedian, Bob Cole (1868-1911), also featured in the show, as did musicians Ernest Hogan and Bob Cole, actress Dora Dean, dancer Charles E. Johnson (later known as “The Cakewalk King”) and singer Belle Davis.
These stars of The Creole Show, and other black entertainers, went on to write, produce and play in a series of new revues and plays, including Clorindy (the first all-black revue to appear in New York City), The Gold Bug and shows with themes tied to Africa, such as In Dahomey and Abyssinia. Sissieretta Jones, a classical opera singer and the first black woman to perform at Carnegie Hall, joined in this renaissance of black entertainment and formed the Black Patti Troubadours, a group that toured for many years.
Ernest Hogan, also a cast member of The Creole Show, went on to become a popular and successful musician and songwriter. He is best known as an early innovator and popularize of a musical style that was coming of age in some African American neighborhoods of New Orleans and St. Louis. Called “ragtime” for its syncopated, “ragged” rhythm, Hogan, along with Scott Joplin, were the most famous performers of the music that is still associated with the 1920s.
Although little remembered today, The Creole Show marked a breakthrough for African American entertainers in the generation following the Civil War. The revue, and its successors, brought black actors, singers, playwrights and composers to the attention of both black and white Americans and, eventually, to worldwide prominence.