Angela Woollacott’s recent work looks at Australian women adopting exotic personas in order to pursue theatrical careers overseas. Reading theatrical journals at the turn of the century, as also the literature on blackface minstrelsy and the circus, I’m struck anew by the fluidity of racial categories in popular theatre. Speaking of ‘fluidity’ is potentially misleading here, though, because it gives a celebratory cast to all that racial posturing and imposture, invoking notions of happy ambiguity and play. Not everyone was a well-educated / white woman, exoticising their image for personal and commercial gain. Many performers had little say over the racial guises they assumed on stage.
The Australian circus historian Mark St Leon writes about Con Colleano, an Aboriginal tightwire performer who made a name for himself in America after cutting his teeth in travelling Australian shows. Colleano was of Irish and West Indian as well as Aboriginal ancestry, and he assumed a brindled array of identities throughout his career. He was taught ‘Arab tumbling’ by a New York-born Jewish acrobat, and at one stage was required to masquerade as Arab by one of his Australian employers. In America, he wore a Spanish toreador costume on the tightwire (that’s a picture of him in 1924, above), and one of his sisters performed in circuses as ‘Senorita Sanchez’.
Wendy Holland tells a similar story about her great-grandfather, Harry Dunn, an Aboriginal man with Irish/Sierra Leone heritage, who as a boy was picked up (abducted?) by the Fitzgerald circus operators on Queensland’s Paroo River. In the late 1880s, the Fitzgeralds gave him the name Cardella and assigned him a Spanish identity, presumably to make him more palatable to white audiences than an Aboriginal performer. Aboriginal people had long been a resource to circus operators in Australia, but they were just as often billed as South American or ‘Wild Indian’, given names like Senorita Sanchez and Master Antonio.
The fascinating postscript to Holland’s story is that she learnt that her great grandfather had an African heritage as well as an Aboriginal one by reading a stray comment in St Leon’s book. So masked by multiple exotic identities, she and her family had not known about that actual complexity to his history. How about finding it out that way?!
Wendy Holland, ‘Reimagining Aboriginality in the Circus Space’, Journal of Popular Culture 33.1 (1999).
Mark St Leon, Wizard of the Wire: The Story of Con Colleano (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993.
Angela Woollacott, ‘Rose Quong Becomes Chinese: An Australian in London and New York, Australian Historical Studies 38.129 (April 2007).
(PS The picture of Con Colleano came from this site on Australian travelling entertainment).