Empress of the stage

Paige McGinley, associate professor of performing arts in Arts & Sciences

“In the recent passing of Bessie Smith, ‘Queen of the Blues,’ a brilliant chapter in the history of the theatre came to a close.” It’s the first sentence of St. Clair Bourne’s reflection on Smith’s legacy, published in the New York Amsterdam News a few weeks after her 1937 death. And it’s a strange way of introducing someone most often thought of as a musical star — but Bourne apparently saw nothing unusual in exploring Smith’s formative influence on blues and swing while also describing her as “royalty among theatrical performers.”

Nor was Bourne an outlier: Black women blues performers were regularly referred to as “actresses” in the black press — particularly before, but also after, the so-called “race records” industry made them household names.

Read the full piece in NPR.

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