Abbie Mitchell was an African American teacher, actress, and soprano born on the Lower East Side of New York City. Mitchell’s father was German-Jewish and her mother was an African American. Mitchell, who came from a talented musical family, was considered a child prodigy.
In 1897, after completing her high school education in Baltimore, Mitchell returned to New York City to try out for a role in Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, a musical comedy. Will Marion Cook and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, respectively, wrote the music and lyrics for Clorindy which was considered at the time the most important musical featuring an all-black cast. Mitchell would eventually work with other major composers including Harry T. Burleigh, Jean de Reske, and Emilia Serrano with whom she studied in Paris. In 1898 Mitchell married Will Marion Cook. The couple had two children.
During the summer of 1898 Mitchell became a featured performer at private gatherings for New York socialites such as the Astors, Goulds, Morgans, and Vanderbilts. Capitalizing on her growing popularity with New York elites, Will Marion Cook wrote the musical comedy, Jes Lake White Folks in 1898 as a vehicle to showcase his wife’s talents. Mitchell played one of the main characters.
In 1902 Cook and Dunbar collaborated on another musical comedy, In Dahomey, produced by the comedy team of Walker and Williams. In Dahomey was the most successful theatrical production mounted by African Americans—and the first play with an all-black cast—to be performed on Times Square. Mitchell sang “Brownskin Baby Mine,” which became one of the most popular songs of the era.
In Dahomey was also performed in England. In June 1903, to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Wales, the production was staged before the Royal Family in Buckingham Palace. A royal coach was dispatched to bring Abbie Mitchell to the Palace for her performance, a rare gesture of respect and admiration by the Royal Family.
After the In Dahomey U.S. national tour ended, Mitchell returned to New York to continue her work in what was emerging as the national center of African American theater. She and other black performers often gathered or lived at the Marshall Hotel on 53rd Street. Mitchell increasingly spent time with younger performers such as the Nashville Students, a theatrical troupe that made its debut in New York City in 1905 but which eventually performed in Paris, London, and Berlin.
In 1908 Mitchell starred as the lead soprano in the Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson musical Red Moon, which later toured Europe. During that tour Mitchell gave a command performance for Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
In 1915 Abbie Mitchell could be found performing at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater, soon to be the most important theatrical venue for black stage actors. She also performed at other leading black theaters including the Pekin Theater in Chicago and the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. The performances there were not entirely of her choosing. By the early 1920s most black stage actors were no longer allowed to perform in white theaters across Manhattan.
Mitchell performed in over two dozen plays during the 1920s and 1930s including The Count of Monte Cristo, Othello, The Chocolate Soldier, The Emperor Jones, and The Little Foxes. She was best known as Madame X in the play by that name. In 1929 Mitchell performed with Helen Hayes in the Chicago production of Coquette. Two years later in a national broadcast from a Chicago radio station Mitchell showed her vocal artistry by performing French songs by Debussy, Duparc, and Foudrain, German songs by Pahlen, the poems of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and spirituals written by her husband, Will Marion Cook. Although Abbie Mitchell became the head of the vocal department at Tuskegee Institute in 1931, she continued to perform before audiences around the world including a concert in the Soviet Union.
Abbie Mitchell gave her last performance in Westport Connecticut in the summer of 1947 when she appeared in The Skull Boat. Despite all her acclaim she remained disappointed that she never performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. As one historian of her life recalled, Mitchell’s life epitomized the paradox that affected black theatrical performers who recalled the glamour of the early 1900s when they were idolized by European audiences, European royalty and Harlem theater-goers, but never accepted by the general theater-going public in the United States.
Abbie Mitchell died in Harlem Hospital on March 16, 1960.