01 Nov 2021

Black History Month- Key Black figures from the arts and performance world throughout history

Post by Amy Mellows


As Black History Month draws to a close, we wanted to highlight some key Black figures from the arts and performance world throughout recent history, that due to institutionalised racism, homophobia and transphobia (and the erasure/ lack of documentation of Black history) haven’t been recognised and celebrated enough. Black History Month ending is not an excuse to stop talking about Black History, or for us to stop our work towards becoming an anti-racist organisation, so it’s important to keep the conversation (and action) going all year round.


These are just a few figures that I knew of or found during my research this month, there are hundreds of other Black creatives in history that need researching into, writing about and recognition. See our list below and don’t forget to also check out The National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive https://www.blackplaysarchive.org.uk and The British Library’s article on Black British Theatre 1950-1979 https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/black-british-theatre-1950-1979 whilst you’re at it! You can also see what the local Northcott Theatre is doing to consider representation and voice here: https://www.exeternorthcott.co.uk/heritage/learning-from-the-past-so-we-can-be-better-in-the-future-considering-representation-and-voice/ 



Ira Aldridge (1807-1867)

“Ira Aldridge was an American actor who made his career on the London stage, largely as a result of his roles in Shakespeare. But he also toured the regions extensively and audiences across the south east will have had the opportunity to see him perform his famous portrayal of Othello.”







Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

Bentley was a gender-bending performer during the Harlem Renaissance. Donning a top hat and tuxedo, Bentley would sing the blues in Harlem establishments like the Clam House and the Ubangi Club. According to a belated obituary published in 2019, The New York Times said Bentley, who died in 1960 at the age of 52, was “Harlem’s most famous lesbian” in the 1930s and “among the best-known black entertainers in the United States.”





Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)

“A biracial, butch lesbian, DeLarverie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was always a performer. As a teenager, she joined the Ringling Brothers Circus where she rode jumping horses. Then from 1955 to 1969, DeLarverie toured the black theater circuit as the MC — and only drag king — of the Jewel Box Revue, the first racially integrated drag revue in North America.”






Wole Soyinka (1934- Present)

“In 1957 Wole Soyinka, who would later become the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was attending Leeds University, studying for his MA. He journeyed to London and landed at the Royal Court where he became a script-reader and member of the Writer’s Group, and started to write plays and act in sketches. He taught and authored over ten plays, before his second play at the Royal Court was produced in 1966.”






Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

Ailey was a choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the most prominent dance companies globally, in 1958. His signature work, including “Cry” and “Revelations,” continue to be performed all over the world. In 2014, Ailey was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his influential work in bringing dance to underserved communities.





Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)

Marsha P. Johnson — who would cheekily tell people the “P” stood for “pay it no mind” — was an outspoken transgender rights activist and is reported to be one of the central figures of the historic Stonewall uprising of 1969. Along with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, Johnson helped form Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical political organization that provided housing and other forms of support to homeless queer youth and sex workers in Manhattan. She also performed with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches from 1972 through the ‘90s and was an AIDS activist with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).






Pearl Bailey (1918-1990)

“Pearl Bailey was an extraordinary Black entertainer who learned to sing in church and left high school to hone her entertainment skills in small-town theaters with the big bands. She recorded albums with Count Basie and appeared in nightclubs with Cab Calloway and his band. In 1946, she debuted in a Broadway musical, and in 1947, her first film. In 1967, Bailey was back on Broadway for her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Dolly Levi in an all-Black production of “Hello, Dolly!” In 1971, she hosted “The Pearl Bailey Show” on television.”






Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965)

Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black person to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress in “Carmen Jones” in 1954, and a Golden Globe in 1959 for best actress in “Porgy and Bess.” As a young Black singer and actress in the ’30s, she often felt the impact of prejudices toward her skin color and faced segregation and racism. She was allowed to sing on stage, but not permitted to eat or socialize in the clubs where she performed.





Willi Ninja (1961-2006)

Ninja was a dancer, choreographer and the “Grandfather of Vogue,” the dance style that he helped propel to the national stage. Vogueing, characterized by angular body movements and exaggerated runway poses, was introduced to the public in the award-winning 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” which Ninja appeared in, and was popularized by Madonna’s 1990 hit song “Vogue.”





Hattie McDaniel (1983-1952)

“Hattie McDaniel showed true strength and hope as a Black woman in Hollywood in the 1940s. Because of her color, McDaniel was forced to sit in the backroom inside the Academy Awards’ segregated venue when she became the first Black person to win an Oscar for the film “Gone With the Wind.” She was not allowed to attend the film’s premiere, and was often criticized for her portrayal of the racist stereotype, the Mammy. Still, she paved the way for Black representation in the film industry.”





Ethel Waters (1917-1977)

“Ethel Waters began her career in the 1920s, singing the blues in the midst of the Great Migration. She became the first Black woman to integrate into Broadway and was well known to play by her own rules. Waters was the first Black person to star in her own television series, “The Ethel Waters Show” on NBC in 1939, and the first to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1962 for her appearance on “Route 66.” Three of the songs she recorded in her singing career—”Dinah,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Am I Blue?”—are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.”





Diahann Carroll (1935-2015)

“In 1968, Diahann Carroll made television history as the first Black actress to star in the prime-time TV series “Julia,” portraying a Black woman in a non-stereotypical way—not the usual domestic worker. Popular shows like “Dynasty,” “The Hollywood Palace,” and “The Love Boat” all made Carroll a household name throughout the ’70s. In 1974, she received an Oscar best actress nomination for her work in “Claudine,” a film she appeared in with James Earl Jones.”






Ossie Davis (1917-2005)

“A civil rights activist and broadway star, Ossie Davis is well known for his Broadway performances and outspoken politics for the Black community. Davis hit his break playing a role in Broadway’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994. He is also well known for raising money in the ’60s for the Freedom Riders’ cause.”






Harry Belafonte (1927-Present)

“Harry Belafonte was the first Black person in entertainment history to win an Emmy Award in 1960. Six years earlier, the actor, singer, and activist also became the first Black man to win a Tony Award. Belafonte also made a breakthrough in music outside of his acting career, introducing Trinidadian Caribbean music to a more mainstream audience.”





→ Read another Blog Post here: Of Course We Should Be Talking about White Privilege