Sissieretta Jones; The Interdisciplinary Icon 

      Sissieretta Jones, whose birth name is Matilda S. Joyner was a vocalist, producer, and performer considered one of the first globally recognized Black superstars in the late nineteenth century and was the first Black female performer at Carnegie Hall in June of 1982. She is also credited with creating a safe space for Black artists during the Vaudeville era, with her touring show Black Patti’s Troubadours.  Born in Portsmouth, Virginia to loving parents Jeremiah and Henrietta Joyner, singing was in her blood. Her mother was a choir singer and her father was a choir director and pastor. She grew up surrounded by music, and it was no surprise when she began performing in vaudeville shows at the age of 14. Her natural talent combined with her formal training at the New England Conservatory made her a dynamic and powerful singer. She went on to tour the world, performing and receiving medals from numerous countries and royals. (Reznik, 2019) Despite fighting for her worth and being paid more than most Black performers at the time, she of course faced the eugenic-ridden ideology of being less than due to her race. As her career grew she was established as “ The Greatest Singer of Her Race” and was dubbed “Black Patti”, comparing her to Italian opera star Adelina Patti. She wore elaborate and beautiful dresses, with white opera gloves and medals poured over her chest. ( Brooke, 1994) This is the balance she had to strike in order to humanize and legitimize herself. I can relate to this tug of war, the delicate balance of remaining authentic to yourself and yet not too Black. Madame Jones was amongst many Black Performers and artists who toured Europe, and I will explore how performing and traveling to Europe affects their lives and careers.
A child playing dress up.. That is the image that comes to mind when reviewing media and news articles about Madame Jones. Despite being one of the most highly classically trained and vocally flexible singers of her time, she was reduced to a sophisticated “nigger” playing dress-up. European media ignored her, and any reviews of her performances are hard to find. The ones that did report on her ability, would downplay and disregard her talent. Instead they focused on her clothes, or her demeanor or the fact that again, a Black person was participating in a white space. ( Moriah, 2017).

“Sissieretta Jones and the Black Feminist Recording Praxis” explores how as a dark skin Black woman she astounded German audiences. There was this concerted effort amongst the German press to describe her as mulatto, genteel and meek. German audiences were also surprised to hear the Madame Jones remix and put her Black influence on Ms. Adelina Patti’s most popular hits. It’s ironic, considering how white audiences both in the US and abroad expressed desire to see her sing more “ ethnic” material, also known as Folk and Coon songs. In “Staging Intersectionality; Power and Performance in American Cultural Texts”, Reznik explores the ways in which Madame Jones had to subvert and play into stereotypes in order to survive. It’s a painful experience, as detailed by Ms. Jones herself, “

It rather annoys me…I am afraid people will think I consider myself the equal of Patti herself. I assure you I don’t think so, but I have a voice and I am striving to win the favor of the public by honest merit and hard work”- Madame Jones

Even as one of the best opera singers of her generation, highly honored and recognized she wasn’t allowed to affirm her power in public. There is this air of humility that Black artists are expected to have and this quote further elaborates that. Why is it crazy? To compare herself to the namesake already compared to her? Madame Jones takes existing European works and embeds her own style and tone into it while appearing as lavish and “civilized”. It reminds me of the cakewalk, us emulating them emulating us, until we’ve changed it all together completely.  That is the type of quiet subversion Black artists participate in globally and it still reigns true today. Upon Madame Jones’ return to America in the late 1890’s her career took a turn. Due to the passing of Plessy V. Ferguson and the ensuing Jim Crow Laws, prestigious theaters would no longer book her. Furthermore, the segregation of theaters limited the amount of Black fans that could attend her shows. To continue performing she started her touring show  Black Patti Troubadours redefined the classic “coon” shows of the day. Vaudeville and Blackface were in full effect and Black performers were heavily policed. They couldn’t be different, they had to fit the stereotype. However, Madame Patti’s show was meant to serve and disrupt this stereotype.

Though Jones disliked the name, it helped to sell tickets. The Troubadours toured the country. Their shows started with a mix of vaudeville songs and sketches. But they always concluded with lavish operatic set pieces in which Jones’s talent could shine.” (Randye Jones, 2019)

 Madame Jones toured with over 50 acrobats, musicians and performers. The acts were interdisciplinary combining all forms of art. She also refused to end with the cakewalk which was customary in Negroe comedy/Vaudeville shows of the time. Istead, she would end the shows with elaborate folk opera solos dressed in her finest gown or ragtime pieces made for the crowd to dance to.

“Her dress and song choices comprise performances that resist a racist entertainment industry that only hired white women singers for concert halls and relegated Black performers to minstrel shows” ( Reznik,2019)

Madame Jones had previously held this status herself, she had performed on concert stages all over the world and in the United States before the creation of Jim Crow laws. Traveling to Europe, despite all its challenges, gave Madame Jones the opportunity to experience the fame she so deserved. This experience also reiterated how wrong it was for her to be treated so terribly upon returning home. She was a globally recognized talent, and yet in her own home that barely mattered.  Madame Jones created a safe space for African-American performers, some of whom would never leave the country. Her touring show protested this blatant disregard for talent, while giving space for Black artists in her troupe to step outside of the box as well. It should also be mentioned that her tours provided stable income, community and opportunity to fellow Black performers toeing the delicate line of the Vaudeville era.  Her tours also helped to jumpstart the careers of many of the crew, emphasizing how important Black diversity was for Madame Jones. All in all, it is inspiring to consider the barriers that Black artists faced both on the homefront and abroad. They created this pathway for future generations to explore and greet the world with open arms. They shouldered the pain, so we could begin to see change. While the struggle for visibility for Black artists persists globally, we would be nowhere without the sacrifices of these great icons.

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