Arabella Fields

Constantly touring, performing in a dizzying array of styles and winning fans across the continent, Arabella Field’s life was paradigmatic of that of the variety star at the turn of the last century.

by Deborah Pomeranz
Advertisement by Arabella Fields. From: Das Programm, Nr. 223, 1906.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Despite the marginalization and exclusion she faced as a Black immigrant, Fields forged her own path of creative expression, material success, and local belonging.

A Singer Gets Her Start

In the summer of 1894, at the age of fifteen, Arabella Middleton sang in Berlin for the first time. A month before, she had left her hometown of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA) with an African American variety troupe. The group continued touring Europe, and Arabella married her fellow singer, James C. Fields, with whom she then toured as a duo.

The Passage Theater where Fields performed, 1905.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Max Missmann
James died in Berlin in 1902 and Fields, widowed at 23, decided to continue as a solo act. As the “Black Nightingale” she traveled the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires, with frequent stops in Berlin theaters like the Walhalla, Passage, or Max Reinhardt Summer Theater. In 1907 she followed one of these engagements with a recording session with Anker Phonogramm. The six records were so successful that they were re-released well into the 1920s.

The Transformation Artist

With her enormous vocal range and knowledge of five languages, Fields expanded her repertoire from US-American popular music to include arias, German Lieder, and Alpine folk songs complete with yodeling. She provided her own accompaniment, on banjo or guitar. Between numbers Fields switched costumes, ranging from evening gowns to traditional Trachten, making the quick changes part of the entertainment.

New Years’ Advertisement by Arabella Fields. From: Das Programm, Nr. 404, 1910.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
The mutable performances reflected a shifting self-presentation: Fields advertised her shows variously as starring a US-American, a German, an African, an Indigenous Australian, or a South American. This advertising strategy may have been Field’s attempt to take advantage of the othering she faced as a non-white performer, and to appeal to the audience’s desire for the presumed ‘exotic.’ On the other hand, in switching between her public identifications almost as quickly as her costumes, Fields parodied the desire for such performances of otherness. In so doing, she undermined assumptions of national and racial identity as natural, unchanging, and unambiguously legible in the body, and reclaimed the right to publicly disclose these personal details, or not, on her own terms.

Perpetual Movement, Perpetual Reinvention

The ever more successful Fields hired Engelhardt Winter as her manager, and the two soon married, though Fields kept the name under which she had become famous. Now a German citizen, she remained in the country after the outbreak of the First World War. Still, in 1915 the couple decided to move to the neutral Netherlands, where they stayed until 1920. Not long after returning to economically devastated Germany, Fields began another international tour, which would keep her on the road for three years.

By 1925, Germany was able to attract international stars again, and Fields returned to Berlin to join one of the first new all-Black Revues under the leadership of jazz musician Sam Wooding. She stayed for Louis Douglas’ “Black People” (1926) and “Louisiana” (1929), revues that brought together three generations of Black talent in Europe. Fields was still on tour with the latter in 1931 when director Rex Ingram tracked her down for a role in his movie “Baroud.” Her debut as a film actress would be the last major performance of a career that spanned four decades. After filming in Morocco, Fields moved to Hamburg and stepped back from the public eye. We don’t know how she spent the rest of her life.