192 : John Isham’s ‘Oriental America’ show 1897-1898

The general opinion on African American shows in Britain is that In Dahomey introduced the cakewalk dance to London in 1903. As page 001 of this site indicates, the dance was already associated with black Americans and was brought into the London show to meet audience expectations. Another ‘truth’ that owes a great deal to myopic writers is that Josephine Baker was the first female black star to have a reputation in Europe (from the 1920s). A pioneer in black song-and-dance shows with female performers was John W. Isham (1866-1902) whose Wikipedia entry deserves attention.

Isham brought Oriental America to England in April 1897. The passenger list of the Waesland sailing from Philadelphia to Liverpool can be found in Britain’s National Archives in Kew near London, file BT 26/102. All but five of the thirty-one performers were in their twenties (Josie Lamont was 19); four men were 30 or older, the oldest being Isham who was said to be 39 (which conflict with standard references). The musical conductor was George Collins.

Robert Cropp (see page 184) was named later in the British tour but another performer who settled in Europe, Belle Davis, is on that passenger list (she was 28). Sidney Woodward went to Dresden in Germany to improve his singing technique. No doubt others moved around Europe although the Oriental America show never toured the Continent.

Oriental America merged minstrel show traditions with popular and operatic music and had been the first black musical to open on Broadway. Why historians did not examine this show before John Graziano of New York is an oddity but theatre programmes of their British tour clearly show its minstrel roots, perhaps too uncomfortable to many.

‘The Great Company of Coloured Comedians, Singers & Dancers in the Unique Entertainment direct from New York, U.S.A.’ presented a three-part show following an overture. The Blackville Derby was set at a horse race, and had ‘the latest Darkey Melodies’. Nearly every member of the cast made an appearance. There were modifications and the Derby was sometimes followed by America’s Vaudeville, sometimes it followed Vaudeville. This had songs involving watermelons, My Old Kentucky Home, the Old Folks at Home and Swanee River.  There were dancers and comic performances. The star of the next part was Sidney Woodward, ‘the American tenor’ who presented selections from grand and comic opera including Verdi, Sousa and Gounod. The show ended with a Coon Cake Walk featuring ‘John W. Isham’s High-Born, Free-Born, Anglo American Ladies … High-Steppers … [whose] peculiar Walk or prancing, is natural’.

Graziano studied programmes from 19 April 1897 to 21 February 1898. The show toured all over Britain. Its impact on British theatrical and musical performers is unknown.


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