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PHOTO ESSAY

Early Black Comedians

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Lawanda Page

Lawanda Page as Aunt Esther. Courtesy of Photofest.

While never transcending race-based typecasts, Lawanda Page demonstrated that the inanities of everyday life were hardly exclusive to race. Her most famous role came as Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son, the popular mid-1970s black sitcom starring Redd Foxx, where she played a religious, ever-contentious killjoy who was constantly feuding with her brother-in-law (Foxx). Sanford, which aired on NBC, was a sanitization of sorts—like Chitlin' Circuit coperformers Foxx, "Moms" Mabley, and Skillet & Leroy, Page had made her name in "blue" comedy, the term for bawdy, hypersexual routines—but its success proved that white Americans would respond to a show with an "undercurrent of the political and social condition of African Americans frequently mixed in" (Burroughs). Page was a gifted stand-up, as well as a sought-after insult comic, participating in the roasts of Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, and Dean Martin.

Burroughs, Todd Steven. "Comedians." In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Paul Finkelman, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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