“Leigh Whipper, the first Black member of the Actors’ Equity Association (1913), was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1876. His father, William J. Whipper, was a Pennsylvania entrepreneur and abolitionist before the Civil War and later a member of two Constitutional Conventions during the Reconstruction era. His mother, Frances Rollin Whipper, was a writer. Whipper attended public school in Washington, D.C. After leaving Howard University Law School in 1895, he immediately joined the theater.
Never a drama student, Whipper honed his acting abilities by observing the techniques of some of the most established actors of his day and interpreting the voices of some of his favorite writers, including Paul Laurence Dunbar. By the turn of the century, he had made his first Broadway appearance in Georgia Minstrels.
“Brooker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels was the first successful African Americanblackfaceminstrel troupe. The company was formed in 1865. Under the management of Charles Hicks, the company enjoyed success on tour through the Northeastern United States in 1865 and 1866. They billed themselves as “The Only Simon Pure Negro Troupe in the World” and their act as an “authentic” portrayal of black plantation life. One ad claimed their troupe was “composed of men who during the war were SLAVES IN MACON, Georgia, who, having spent their former lives in Bondage… will introduce to their patrons’ PLANTATION LIFE in all its phases.” For their part, the public and press largely believed them. One New York newspaper called them “great delineators of darky life” and said that they presented “peculiar music and characteristics of plantation life.”
The Georgia Minstrels gained fame and success, and large crowds watched them perform in many cities. They repeatedly outperformed both black and white rivals throughout 1866. Trade journals and theatergoers came to regard them as in the same category as successful all-white companies, and “Georgia” came to signify “Colored” when used in the title of a minstrel troupe. Perhaps most significantly, the success of the Georgia Minstrels spawned many imitators. Other black troupes found greater success and acceptance, and black minstrelsy took off as a genre in its own right.”
STEVEDORE – The play so resonated with Seattle’s audiences, who had experienced the 1934 longshore strike, that some members of the audience spontaneously joined the cast on stage to help build the barricades in the final scene. (Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, UW Theatres Photograph Collection, (PH Collection #236), box 4, folder 18.)K
Stevedore‘s cast brought white and African American actors together in a play about the tenuous solidarity built during labor strikes. (Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, UW Theatres Photograph Collection, (PH Collection #236), box 4, folder 18.)
A scene from Stevedore. (Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, UW Theatres Photograph Collection, (PH Collection #236), box 4, folder 18.)
ARCHIVIST, HISTORIAN, and ARTiST
Dale Shields is a professor of theatre, director, and actor (Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Regional).
The 2017 winner of The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award®, 2017 and 2015 Tony® award nominee for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award, and the winner of the 2017 AUDELCO/"VIV" Special Achievement Award. On the web, he is the archivist and historian of Iforcolor.org and Black Theatre/African American Voices [Facebook] (theatre, music, and art). He has taught classes and workshops at SUNY Potsdam, Susquehanna University, Denison University, Randolph-Macon College, Macalester College, The College of Wooster, Ohio University, Wayne State University, and the Joseph Papp Public Theatre (New York Shakespeare Festival).
B.F.A. and M.F.A. degree from Ohio University.