Though a native of Georgia, Georgia Burke spent at least ten years in Wilson, teaching third and fourth grade (and coaching basketball and tennis) to the children of the Colored Graded School and the Wilson Normal and Industrial Institute. She was one of the eleven teachers who walked off the job in support of Mary C. Euell in 1918 and, in 1921, was involved in another incident in which “a race riot was narrowly averted.” Burke auditioned for a Broadway on a lark in 1928, got the role, and never returned to teaching.
“This li’l old typewriter hasn’t been reading programs for more than forty years, so it is unable to single out from the more or less confused card of the races that dancin’ colored boy who makes ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ stand out in an uncommonly good road season of uncommonly good road shows. In that jungle of names and numbers, his name is lost. This is regretted, seriously, for the reason that, without regard to color or condition, this keyboard is glad to pound out the fact that he is the most brilliant dancer of his type ever seen on the stage – certainly on the Richmond stage, and, be it remembered, the road sees the good dancers and good actors long before they are “discovered” by reviewers who cover Broadway shows. That statement must be qualified, of course, so as to except imported stars and manufacturer stars – such for example, as Mr. Belasco has fabricated. And, moreover – but this has nothing to do with the case.
“‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is an all-colored show after the general style of ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Runnin’ Wild,’ but, in so far as the road production is a guide, it is much more pretentious – to use the press agents’ favorite word – than its predecessors. It is slighter in its comedy than either of the others mentioned: but its costuming and setting are more elaborate and handsome than those of both the others put together. A long, gangling colored man named Lew Payton wrote the book and plays the comedy lead. He is so free from exaggeration in his work on the stage and has been so true to life in his comedy writing for the stage that it is quite easy for us down here to understand why this particular play and performance did not turn ‘em away in New York. At any rate, to those who fully realize how good this man is he is the acting star of his own show. That dancin’ colored boy walks away with the performance because his work is spectacular and brilliant and, in its own field just about unapproachable.
“It’s a fact, perfectly clean, amusing show, in which every member of the cast and chorus plays and dances as if for the love of it. The little orchestra carried by the company plays admirably. And the pianist-director, a woman, plays beautifully. One-man opinion is that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – provided the entertainment is not submerged by the pitiful tragedy of some of the performers, who are white – but colored.
“Why, several of them have well schooled voices, one of the women would make ‘White Cargo’ more realistic than ever it has been – but this is not moralization: it is supposed to be a report of a performance. Therefore, it is repeated that ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ is clinking good entertainment – but what a piteous aching thing is this problem of ours! — Douglas Gordon.”
The Wilson Theatre‘s manager reprinted a Richmond critic’s bizarrely incomprehensible review to promote — to an all-white audience — a one-night performance of The Chocolate Dandies, a lavish musical meant to capitalize on the success of Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake‘s break-out Broadway production. Based on a book by Sissle and Lew Payton and with music by Blake, the stage show played 96 shows the 1200-seat New Colonial Theatre at 1887 Broadway at 62nd Street from 1 September through 22 November 1924. Josephine Baker — a few years away from her Paris debut — had a minor role, but it is not clear whether she took to the road with the traveling show. Douglas Gordon’s piece — which seems to be positive — aside, the critical reception was mixed.
In the late summer of 1922, the New York Age‘s Wilson correspondent included this short snippet in her report of Black Wide-Awake’s social swirl:
New York Age, 9 September 1922.
The Battle sisters, teacher Georgia Burke and nurse Henrietta Colvert were neighbors as well as travel companions. In the 1920 census of the Town of Wilson, Wilson County: at 330 South Spring Street, Henrietta Colvert is listed as a boarder in the household of widow Nannie Best, 61, and her extended family Frank, 30, Aaron, 21, Estelle, 19, and Harper Best, 65. Next door, at 332: widow Ella Battle, 52, and her children Grace [Glace], 27, teacher Roberta, 29, tobacco worker John, 25, and Olga Battle, 11, shared their home with boarders Georgia Burks, 25, a Georgia-born teacher, and chauffeur Theodore Speight, 17; and roomers William Phillips, 35, a dentist, and his wife Jewel, 23.
Burke taught in Wilson for at least ten years. In April 1918, she was one of eleven African-American teachers who resigned to protest the slapping of a black teacher by school superintendent Charles L. Coon and the disrespect shown them by Colored Graded School principal J.D. Reid. With the others, Burke resumed teaching at the privately funded Wilson Independent School. (More about this infamous and revolutionary incident soon.)
In 1928, while taking a summer course at Columbia, she sang a few songs while attending a rehearsal for “Blackbirds of 1928.” Hired for the choir, she took a year’s leave of absence from teaching. She never returned.
The Afro-American, 6 May 1944.
New York Age, 26 March 1949.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 March 1953.
“Georgia Burke, 107, Acted Character Roles.”
Georgia Burke, an actress who played character roles on Broadway from the 1920’s until her retirement in the 1960’s, died in the De Witt Nursing Home in Manhattan last Thursday. According to the records of the Actors Fund of America, she was 107 years old.
Miss Burke appeared on Broadway in “The Grass Harp,” “The Wisteria Trees,” “No Time for Comedy,” “Mamba’s Daughters,” “They Shall Not Die,” “Anna Lucasta,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Mandingo” and “Decision,” for which she won the Donaldson Award in 1944.
Born on Feb. 27, 1878, in La Grange, Ga., Miss Burke studied at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S. C., and taught fourth grade for six years.
In 1929, she came to New York to take a summer course at Columbia University. At the time a black choir was being assembled for ”Blackbirds” on Broadway. A friend persuaded her to audition. She sang ”St. Louis Blues” and was hired on the spot and she left teaching to pursue an acting career.
In addition, Miss Burke appeared on radio and television serials. For five years before and during World War II, she played the role of a nurse in ”When a Girl Marries.” There are no known survivors. A service, sponsored by the Actors Fund, will be held at noon tomorrow at the Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home, 1504 Third Avenue. — New York Times, 4 December 1985.
Georgia Burke in “Anna Lucasta,” New York Age, 28 February 1959.