Hyers Sisters

Hyers Sisters





Hyers Sisters


Historically, the black musical comedy was considered as highly entertaining for centuries. Despite its origin being from the era of the minstrelsy, the format of this theatrical genre was different as it employed the use of scripted narrations, which were performed intermittently with music, dance, and songs as compared to its earlier forms that were more minstrels-based (Hill & Hatch, 2003). Individuals that contributed to the conceptualization and popularization of this genre were Bert Williams, the Johnsons, Bob Cole and George Walker as well as the Hyers Sisters (Elam, 2005). The latter contributed significantly, as they preceded the persons mentioned above. It is important to note that this collaboration of sisters is amongst the small population of women during this period that was highly confident in entering the entertainment industry, which was, considered male dominant. The mention and references of the sisters, despite their popularity, is rare, vague, inaccurate and in some literature, rather contradictory (Hill & Hatch, 2003). Therefore, it is imperative to conduct an in-depth research aimed at detailing their background from a personal and professional level to understand the experiences that shaped them as black women within the music and entertainment industry to further provide a comparative basis for the music industry and black women from that period and the modern day setting.


Professionally, the sisters’ musical and theatrical career can be segmented into three stages (Riis, 1984). Firstly, owing to their reputation, it is important to consider the stage of concretizing. At this stage, the Hyers Sisters were provided a large platform where they performed in various parts of America. The second stage was the musical comedies productions (Elam, 2005). These presentations were executed during the cross-country tours. The stage of the girls’ career lasted for fifteen years. The third stage was appearances. This was done either individually or together as a group (Hill & Hatch, 2003). In most scenarios, they featured as special singers or actors performing in collaboration with the minstrels as well as other troupes during that period. They also had the option of performing singly and in separate shows depending on their specialties if any opportunity arose. Therefore, basing from these stages, their careers flowed as concert to musical comedy and later to special feature performances.



The sisters were named Emma Louise and Anna Madah Hyers. During their career, their sister, May Hyers briefly appeared in some of the records as well. The sisters were born in Sacramento but later on, the family moved to New York, the California later (Justice-Malloy, 2010). Emma was older that Anna by two years. She was born in Sacramento in 1856. Anna was born two years later in 1855. They were born to the family of Samuel and Annie Hyers. The family owned a barbershop in which Sam Hyers worked being a family expert in the business. Following the establishment of his daughters as singers, he abandoned the barbershop to manage his daughters’ careers professionally. His wife, Anne Hyers was an expert in waxwork, embroidery, and leatherwork (Hill & Hatch, 2003). In addition, she also offered classes for crafting for women within the local California community. She was responsible for introducing the sisters into music as soon as they started signing.

family history . When the sisters began gaining popularity as singers at that young age, their parents underwent separation, which saw their mother change her location from Sacramento to San Francisco. Later, she moved to Stockton. During this period, the girls would live with their mother for a while. Their mother was remarried and then moved to Sacramento (Elam, 2005). She was married to a man called Mr. William Prince whom she lived with and assisted her in raising the sisters. Annah, the younger of the two sisters, was married thrice. Her first husband was Henderson Smith who was a. cornet player. On press, she got married on 15 September 1883. The second marriage was to Harry Stafford in 1891. Harry worked as a stage manager for the Octoroons. After her second marriage had been annulled, she was married to DR. Robert J. Fletcher who was a chiropodist (Justice-Malloy, 2010). This was her last marriage as she spent her remaining years after retirement with Fletcher in Sacramento.

marriage . Emma Louise, like her sister, was also married to a cornet player but rather in a more formal and unique manner. Her husband, George Freeman, was the brass band leader at the company she worked for. They were married in an official and public ceremony that was held at the Baldwin Theater in 1883. The wedding was celebrated and had performances from the famous Callender Minstrels serving as an advertisement for the band as well. The marriage only lasted for 11 years as Emma divorced Freeman and was remarried by Walter Espy, an actor featured Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a production that was developed and filmed by the Davis Company.

other family related information. The third Hyers girl who also made appearances in theater was May Hyers. Her first mention was in 1883. She was a member of the Colored Musical Comedy Company, which was founded by Samuel B. Hyers (Justice-Malloy, 2010). There was controversy surrounding her change in name as she was later called Mrs. May Hyers, which led many to question whether she was the wife or the real daughter of Samuel Hyers (Hill & Hatch, 2003). Following a thorough background check, it was discovered that she as formerly known as Mary C. Reynolds. After being granted permission to join the Hyers sisters by her father, Mary performed with them for a short period after which she was married to their father.

Several issues arose between the Hyers sisters and their father who at the time managed the careers. One of the primary issues was caused by Mrs. Mary Hyers who joined the group and married to their father. She posed as a direct competitor to Emma as she was a contralto singer (Krasner, 1997). Due to the sudden acquisition of her position in the sister’s life and career, it caused a rift between them and their father, which led to their eventual departure from the company. They were engaged in different groups and theatrical activities resulting in the formation of two Hyers troupes, which were S.B Hyers Colored Musical Comedy Company and Hyers Sisters Company respectively (Elam, 2005). This divide was quite elaborate as the two companies had different shows scheduled at the same time thus creating a rather complicated scenario for their viewers.


There are several issues that the Hyers Sisters faced which included lack of employment. In the nineteenth-century, most African-American women vocalists who looked for stage experience and needed to be ensured work were compelled to frame their particular musical show organizations (Hay, 1994). These organizations did not remain fiscally fruitful, as they were regularly under-financed and experienced issues in acquiring sufficient execution settings. The initially of these sorted out organizations was the Colored Opera Company built up in 1873 and made exclusively out of dark beginner performers (Hill & Hatch, 2003). In looking into an execution of the Colored Opera Company, a Philadelphia daily paper expressed “the musical show, The Doctor of Alcan Tara, has often been given already by different English organizations; we dare to say, never so impeccably in its group as by this company” (Krasner, 1997). According to the tone of the survey, the American gathering of people was very inspired by disparaging such an occasion.

significance . The primary aspect that made the sisters favorite and contributed to their overall significance was that they had racial undertones and subjects, which mainly started with subjugation scenes and followed the character’s enterprises from servitude to flexibility (Hay, 1994). The entertainers executed credible estate tunes, ditties, operatic numbers, and bona fide people moves, and still figured out how to draw in groups of onlookers of all shading and class. The press every now and again noticed the Hyers troupe as one of the best musical show bouffe troupes in America. Whether the sobriquet was right, the gathering remained solitary for over ten years for being the main troupe to play out an all-dark repertory (Krasner, 1997). Until the 1890s, the Hyers Sisters Concert Company offered the main road to a phase profession for those dark artists who needed to sidestep the minstrel circuit.


With their father going about as director, the Hyers Sisters set out on tour through the Northeastern States halting first in Salt Lake City, Utah on August 12, 1871. Their collection amid this period comprised of arias from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix. When the twosome had achieved Chicago, audits were lauding them as musical wonders. The visit took them through Cleveland where they included the tenor Wallace King (ca.1840 – 1903) and baritone John Luca (ca. the 1820s – 1910) and inevitably handled the troupe in Boston at Patrick Gilmore’s sorted out occasion of 1872, the World Peace Jubilee. Different faultfinders noticed the Hyers Group as the primary practical black show organization. In 1876, the quartet was joined by Sam Lucas (1840 – 1916), a piano player, comic, and artist, and already of Callender’s Georgia Minstrels. By 1875, the gathering was alluded to as the Hyers Sister Combination and was the star fascination at the Sunday Sacred Concerts at the Boston Theater.

That same year the Hyers Sisters, being the first to create musical comedies, started their generation of Out of Bondage (Everett & Laird, 2008). Presently called The Hyers Sisters Concert Company, still under the administration of their father, they changed the troupe’s organization to a musical-comic drama organization after the enormous accomplishment of their 1876 chief. In August 1875 a white Association, the prestigious Redpath Lyceum Bureau of Boston, assumed control over the administration of the Hyers Sister Troupe, the Central African American gathering on its program (Hay, 1994). To be sure, the Hyers Sisters were the primary African-American organization under expert white administration any place around then. When Redpath had met the sisters, their notoriety under the administration of their dad had surpassed some other voyaging bunch. From 1871 to 1876, the Hyers Sisters voyaged everywhere throughout the Northeast, Mid-West, and Western states exhibiting programs that commonly comprised of operatic arias and ballads.

To promote the Hyers Sisters Company in Out of Bondage, Redpath distributed unique booklets featuring segments with so many expressions as “The Centennial Sensation,” “The Great Moral Music Drama,” and “Best Colored Artists in the World” (Hill & Hatch, 2003). Originally months taking after, the musical show was performed with other musical plays, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or with a musical show. The plot of the operetta was regularly broken into three sections by the press, as found in the Clipper, alluding to the three goes about as Slavery, Freedom, and Up North (Everett & Laird,2008). The initial demonstration spoke to the slave at his estate; the second display concentrated on the slave’s admission to flexibility by joining the Union armed force; and the third presentation demonstrated the senior citizens are coming north and meeting the young military man, who at this point had accomplished affluence.

The music from Out of Bondage gave a fantastic outlet to showing the artist/performing artist’s sublime voice and the gifts of ace entertainer Sam Lucas and making a qualification between the “Minstrel Songs” of yesteryears (Krasner, 1997). Bradford did, nevertheless, make it an indicate incorporate musical innuendoes of minstrelsy with terms, for example, “dance time” (one of the soonest precursor’s of jazz) to portray the enthusiastic piano music. Numerous pundits saw these innuendoes as practically taking a bow to minstrelsy generalizations. Incorporated into the arrangements of melodies were versions of spirituals – “No one Knows what inconvenience I’ve seen, “Cut dat Possum,” “Button cum an arena um da,” “One more ribber to cross,” minstrels’ tunes –  “One night as the moon was beaming,” and the slave’s banjo music (Hay, 1994). However, unexpectedly, “Accidental music,”  “Parisian Waltzes” and both classifications well known to the tiptop, were added by Bradford to energize the qualification. By and by, Stephen Foster’s, “My Old Kentucky Home,” advanced into the collection.

With his decision of vocabulary, vernacular, and even different methods of expression, Bradford grasped transparently the slave’s dialect, making the characters reasonable and affable (Trotter, n.d). The general tone of the script was funny permitting the on-screen character to incite silliness. However, Bradford put forth no unpretentious expressions concerning his supposition about the sort of connections that existed and ought to have lived amongst blacks and whites, especially after liberation. His perspectives were most prominent in Act III when the characters uncovered their attention to the substantial duties they experienced as five-star subjects in an incorporated society.

There were numerous restorations of the mainstream operetta, however as in most African-based music, the work remained a constantly advancing piece (Everett & Laird, 2008). A remaking of the work occurred in 1879, which guaranteed new music and lovely outfits, and the dramatization grabbed the sub-title Slavery and Freedom. Definitely, throughout the years, the gathering pulled in new white administration, for example, Mt. T. Boat, Colonel J. H. Rice, and L. K. Donovan, all who needed to get their hands on the benefits (Krasner, 1997). What’s more the or administrators regularly brought on board new African-American ability, specifically the individuals who were at that point built up, for example, Billy Kersands and Fred Lyons. At the point when the Hyers Sisters were not ready to pay for administration, their dad continued the duty.

By 1871, the average repertory of the gathering, notwithstanding Out of Bondage, included Urlina, or the African Princess, The Blackville Twins, Colored Aristocracy,20 and a Plum Pudding. On occasion surveys reported having a “decent house,” yet as the turn of the century drew nearer, houses said ticket offers as not out of the question or more regrettable (Krasner, 1997). On May 26, 1888, the Clipper reported that at Cincinnati’s Grand Opera House business was not sufficiently extensive to pay the gas charge (Hill & Hatch, 2003). Before long, handbills publicizing the troupe’s exercises started to seem less frequently until they inevitably stopped completely.

On April 15, 1893, the Indianapolis Freeman declared the Hyers Sisters retirement from the dramatic stage (Trotter, n.d). Their shows were played in musical drama houses, as well as in places of worship, little music corridors, and even penitentiaries. In spite of the fact that Redpath focused on the privileged, while attempting to make a qualification from minstrelsy, the lower and white-collar class turned out by the thousand to see the troupe. In their prime, the Hyers Sisters were an American organization (Justice-Malloy, 2010). After the Hyers had begun to perform separately, Emma Hyers starred in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1894 while Anna performed with John Ishman’s minstrel group, Octoroons in New York (Hill & Hatch, 2003). By 1895, accounts found Anna performing in Louisville, Kentucky and 1898 in Connecticut with John Isham’s Tenderloin Coon Company. The sisters joined once again under the title Hyers Sisters Colored Specialty Company in Wisconsin, Illinois, with concerts following in Philadelphia between 1896 and 97. After Emma’s death, Anna toured Canada for one-year performing operatic selections and immediately followed with a two-year tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii with Curtis’s All-Star Afro-American Minstrels and Hogan’s Minstrels (Hay, 1994). Anna ended her career with John H. Isham’s Oriental America Company, retiring in 1902. Although the Hyers Sisters did not tour together internationally, for a ten to fifteen-year span, these women appeared in musical plays that profoundly and straightforwardly dealt with the black slavery experience in America.

As elaborated by the literature produced on black musical entertainment, Anna Madah was reported to have died in the early 1920s. As for Emma, her last performance was in 1896 (Justice-Malloy, 2010). She performed in New York at the Eighth Avenue Theatre. In 1901, she died as no further recording of her performances were made.


From a personal perspective, the sisters were hardworking which led them to become overworked. This placed their voices in tremendous strain. This is validated by the reality that they performed for six nights weekly during which they would also drink their special matinees. This might be the reasons for the negative reviews they received from reviewers who stated that their voices had become very hoarse (Krasner, 1997). Secondly, it is clear that their father did not invest in offering the girls expert and professional vocal training. His promise for training failed to materialize. It is possible that through such training, they would have mastered the art of resting their voices in between shows to avoid the extra strain (Justice-Malloy, 2010). It is also evident that their father lacked business acumen on his part, as he would have ensured the girls received the best tutors (Hill & Hatch, 2003). From a personal view, it is valid to state that the Hyers Sisters’ contribution can be likened to that of Ira Aldridge as they were able to revolutionize the black musical performance further promoting the absolute emancipation of the American slaves.



Elam, H. (2005). A History of African American Theatre. By Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch. Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; pp. 608. Theatre Survey, 46(1), 127-129.

Everett, W. A., & Laird, P. R. (2008). The Cambridge companion to the musical (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hay, S. (1994). African American theatre. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. Buckner, J. (2012). “Spectacular Opacities”: The Hyers Sisters’ Performances of Respectability and Resistance. African American Review, 45(3), 309-323. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23783542

Hill, A. (2016). The Black Presence in Theater through the Centuries in the Historical Dictionary of African American Theater. [online] Blackpast.org. Available at: http://www.blackpast.org/perspectives/black-thespians-through-centuries-historical-dictionary-african-american-theatre [Accessed 4 Oct. 2016].

Hill, E. & Hatch, J. (2003). A history of African American theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Justice-Malloy, R. (2010). Theatre history studies, 2010. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press.

Krasner, D. (1997). Resistance, parody, and double consciousness in African American theatre, 1895-1910. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Riis, T. L. (1984). Black Musical Theater, 1870-1930: Research Problems and Resources. American Music, 2(4), 95-100.

Trotter, J. (n.d.). Aolib.com: Music and Some Highly Musical People [Page 65 of 140]. [online] Aolib.com. Available at: http://www.aolib.com/reader_28056_64.htm [Accessed 4 Oct. 2016].




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