John W. Isham (1866-1902) was a producer of groundbreaking all-black minstrel and proto-burlesque shows. Of mixed-race ancestry, he often “passed” for white, which gave him employment and business opportunities he might not have otherwise had. Isham was from Utica, in upstate New York.
As a young man, Isham gained experience in advertising circuses, working for Ryan & Robinson (1883-1884), Sells Brothers (1885-86), and Barnum & Bailey (1886-88). Then, starting in 1890, he became an advance man for Sam T. Jack’s Creole Burlesque Show. Jack’s shows replaced the all male minstrel chorus line with a female chorus. The cast was African American. As Isham became increasingly powerful in the business, in 1895 he opened his own show, Isham’s Creole Opera. That sounded a little too much like Jack’s, so after pressure from the latter, he altered the name to Isham’s Octoroons.
This Octoroons show toured the Northeast and Midwest through 1900. In 1896, he opened Oriental America, the first all-African American show to open on Broadway. Isham’s shows experimented with the old minstrel show format, and were critically praised for the realism in the comic and dramatic sketches. By 1900, his shows were getting major competition from the shows of Williams and Walker, and Cole and Johnson. Isham got out of the business, handing the management over to his brother Will, who produced the show as King Rastus through 1905.
Meanwhile John Isham passed away in 1902 in Whitestone, New York at the age of 37. Contemporary obituaries did not give the cause of death.
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