In celebration of Black History Month and in looking forward to 2021, we’re shining the spotlight this week on upcoming performances featuring celebrated artists of color in our venues. However, we cannot tell this story without also shining light on our history and the Black performers that paved the way for these artists to take the stage.
Highlighted below are just a few of the Black performers that graced the Historic Academy Theatre stage in the early years of operation, from 1905 – 1958.
Matilda Sissieretta Jones, an American soprano more often known as The Black Patti in comparison with superstar italian operatic diva Adelina Patti, and her troupe of entertainers performed in the Historic Theatre during the 1905-1906 season.
The Black Patti “was a pioneer in effort to overcome racial barriers in operatic and classical music performances, but never had the opportunity because of her race to perform in ‘legit’ operas, thus she went into the vaudeville stage with great success.” – Basin Street
Following The Black Patti Troubadours, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle brought the historic Shuffle Along, the first musical written and produced by African Americans to succeed on Broadway, to Lynchburg on January 12, 1923.
Featured in the cast of Shuffle Along was Josephine Baker, an American-born French entertainer. Baker took the Historic Theatre stage at the young age of 15, starring alongside other singers and dancers in the first black musical to play in white theaters across the United States. Years later, Baker would become noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, refusing to perform for segregated audiences in the height of Jim Crow.
Shortly after Shuffle Along took the stage, the “father of blues,” W.C. Handy performed with his band on August 9, 1923, after a refurbishment of the interior of the Historic Theatre space.
Known as the “father of blues” not for creating the genre, but for being the first to publish blues music, W.C. Handy is known as one of the most influential songwriters in the United States. “Handy’s Original Band” performed both afternoon and evening shows in the Historic Academy Theatre.
While the Historic Academy Theatre hosted notable performances featuring the artists of color during the early years of its existence, the history of this theatre, like our American History, is complex and multi-layered.
“Segregation goes back to the beginnings of the Academy,” said Doug Harvey, past Lynchburg Museum Director, in an interview in Encore: The History of the Academy of Music Theater. “When it was built in 1905, Lynchburg and the state of Virginia were very much a segregated society operating through the Jim Crow era.”
From 1905 until 1958, black audiences attending performances at the Historic Academy Theatre used a separate entrance on the Fifth Street side of the building, which led to an isolated ticket booth where ticket takers like Lottie Payne Stratton sat to admit Black patrons to a segregated seating area.
“Your experience [in the second balcony] as an audience member during segregation would’ve had zero to little interaction or exchanges with white patrons,” said Geoffrey Kershner, Executive Director, to the News & Advance in 2015. “The vantage point of the stage is not bad…but [patrons] were still significantly further away and removed from the performance.”
On occasions when the Academy hosted a show “which was sure to attract a large number of African Americans, such as the Black Patti and her ensemble of Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along, the theatre’s first balcony was also made available to Black patrons.”
While Black audience members were able to enjoy the performers noted above on the stage, the isolation of the space is what many often reflect back on when asked about their experiences.
“Moving forward, and following our reopening in 2018, our organization continues to talk about our segregated and painful history, rather than painting over it,” said Kershner. “We want to tell the story as a part of our history and are committed to doing better in the future.”
At the time of its closure in 1958, the Historic Academy Theatre was still a segregated space in Lynchburg. The reopening of the theatre in 2018 was the first time that space was integrated, 60 years later.
Opening week at the Academy was filled with events and performances that celebrated the restoration of the historic space. The week began with an evening of reflection and celebration of the theatre as a place where all are welcome, emceed by former NASA astronaut, Leland Melvin. The night began with the presentation of three awards recognizing the contributions of community members who have made invaluable contributions to arts and culture in Lynchburg. The concert portion of the evening that followed began with an opening performance by musician Devon Gilfillian. To end the night, Grammy award-winning R&B-gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples took the stage.
“The Historic Academy Theatre, while holding a painful past, is now a space where all members of our community can enjoy live performances, films, concerts, and more,” said Brittany Griffith, Director of Programming.
Looking forward, the calendar of programming in late 2021, assuming gathering bans have lifted, is full of exciting performances, three of which feature celebrated nationally touring artists of color.
Rescheduled from the Spring season of 2020 comes Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist, Buddy Guy. Born in 1936 and performing live since the 1950s, Guy is an American Blues guitarist and singer, ranked as one of the top 100 Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine with 8 Grammy awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and a National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States.
Buddy Guy, like his idol B.B. King, rose to the top of the blues world from humble beginnings as a sharecropper’s son. Finding his way in the blues world after moving to Chicago, he recorded behind Muddy Waters and other Mississippi-born bluesmen, including Eddie Boyd, Honeyboy Edwards, John Lee Hooker, Walter Horton, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Sunnyland Slim, Jesse Fortune and Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 in the 1960s. His breakthrough came in 1991 with the breakthrough of Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, the first of his many albums to reach the Billboard charts. Patrons can see Buddy Guy perform live in the Historic Academy Theatre on August 22, 2021.
Ruben Studdard, American singer and actor known widely for his appearance on American Idol Season 2, performs a tribute to legendary artist Luther Vandross in the Theatre on August 28, 2021. Studdard’s performance of Vandross’ music has been noted as “full-on lush-and-funky tribute” where he “truly took wing and made the music of Vandross his own”.
In 2022, the venue will also host Dance Theatre of Harlem, a ballet company founded at the height of the civil rights movement in moments of extreme injustice and frustration. The company was created in New York City by Arthur Mitchell after making history in 1955 as the first black principal dancer at New York City Ballet. In a graceful moment of artistic resistance, he created a haven for dancers of all colors who craved training, performance experience and an opportunity to excel in the classical ballet world.
Today, Dance Theatre of Harlem tours nationally and internationally, presenting a powerful vision for ballet in the 21st century. The 17-member, multi-ethnic company performs a forward-thinking repertoire that includes treasured classics, neoclassical works by George Balanchine and resident choreographer Robert Garland, as well as innovative contemporary works that use the language of ballet to celebrate African American culture.
“We are humbled and honored to host these talented performers on our stage in the coming months,” said Griffith. “And, while it is exciting to share, it is also equally as important to shine light on the performers from the past that paved the way for these performances to take place in our venues today.”