by Gregory Norman Bossert
The earliest known reference to M. Nedubeble and her remarkable act is a handbill advertising a performance at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, London, dating from 1903 or 1904. It depicts a stage—not the great circus of the main hall but a smaller space in the notorious Promenade bar—which at first seems empty apart from a few simple props: a small round table with a vase containing a single lily, a bentwood chair in the art nouveau style, a mirror in a standing frame, all set in front of a draped black curtain. But a longer examination of the engraving reveals the suggestion of a shoulder here, a hip there, the glint of an eye staring back at the viewer.
At the top of the sheet is the name “M. Nedubeble” in flowing cursive. At the bottom in bold letters it reads “Appearing Nightly”.
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It’s worth noting that this is the first documented reference in European literature, and under the name Nedubeble. In her brilliant 2019 book, also called “Appearing Nightly”, Kenyan scholar Usiku Onekana identifies twenty-nine mentions of similar performances outside the focus of mainstream European and American studies, included detailed—and strikingly similar—accounts from Tunis, Mombasa, Istanbul, Bangalore, Shanghai, Osaka, and Lima. She also outlines traditional stories and performances and visual art from dozens of locations from the nineteenth century and earlier that echo or evoke Nedubeble’s act.
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And what was that act? Some of the most famous descriptions come from a series of performances in Paris in the 1920s, attended by the leading lights of Parisian culture of the time including Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Colette, Natalie Clifford Barney, Romaine Brooks, and Ida Rubinstein.
A week at the Théâtre des Noctambules in ‘22, accompanied on piano by no less than composer Germaine Tailleferre of the avant-garde Montparnasse-based group Les Six, elicited this from Stein:
The audience sits in front of a stage that sits still. The stage sits still and empty and the audience sits empty and still. And then she is there still there still. She is there. Still.
And this from a letter from Barney to painter Tamara de Lempicka:
The stage was dimly lit, and empty beyond a few simple props, including a mirror that reflected the stage and a portion of the audience. For an hour or more, there was no visible change or action, beyond the occasional trickle of notes from the piano. And then, just as the audience began to doze or converse or unscrew a flask (or attempt the opposite on one another): a single gasp from the back row, which caught like a fire to spread across the room as one by one we awoke to the appearance. There in the center of the stage stood a woman. She had not walked there, she had not risen from the floor or descended from above; she was simply and suddenly there. Nedubeble!
And such a woman! So tall, so dark, such a mass, with a bright imperious gaze and a tight knit crown of curls. You must go and see her yourself and then paint her for me.
Once everyone in the audience had realized she was there, and reacted in their own way, Nedubeble nodded once. That nod was as remarkable as her appearance; it was not an acknowledgement of the audience, but rather a measured, dare I say provisional, acceptance of our regard for her.
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The descriptions of M. Nedubeble herself vary enormously. A packed performance at Chez Bricktop produced comparisons to everyone from Josephine Baker—Baker herself said, “With those curves, [Nedubeble’s] act is as much a dance as mine, even if she does it standing still”—to Ada “Bricktop” Smith herself—Mabel Mercer said, “Looking her in the eye at the end of the act is like stealing one of Bricktop’s cigars. You’re liable to get bruises.”
But a review from Berlin from the same year depicts a slight, lithe figure in a silver silk tuxedo, with dense braids cascading to her knees. And journalist Pauline Pfeiffer describes Nedubeble in Madrid as wearing “the most stunning blue sequined gown I’ve ever seen, stretched—or glued—over a decidedly masculine form”.
While most accounts place Nedubeble as part of the African diaspora, and her act as an example of the explosive, extraordinary influence that culture had on the world of the twentieth century, there are some that portray her variously as Chinese, Thai, Persian, “Latin”, and, from a newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, “surely a native of the Amazon, if not the goddess herself of that river and its peoples.”
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There are no known surviving photos of Nedubeble. A film of the performance was shot in 1929 in Berlin, using two synchronized, alternating cameras since the film reel of that time only ran for five minutes. The footage has been lost, however, and is assumed to have been destroyed in the war.
In the same year, an exhibition of photographs by surrealist photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller included the work “revelation 29”, a multiple exposure of twenty-nine portraits against a draped black curtain. Twenty-eight of the faces are roughly aligned around the eyes, creating a shifting, evolving sense of gender, race, and age. The final face is tilted downward, placing its eyes on the cheekbones of the others; an effect one critic called “an externalization of introspection” and Dora Maar called “a blush of shocking eroticism”.
In her remarkable 2002 paper on Nedubeble, the basis for her later book, Usiku Onekana uses an analysis of the film grain to show that the lowered face was shot last. She also identifies a thirtieth exposure, an initial layer of the background curtain alone. This sequence—a black stage, an emerging face, a final nod—certainly evokes the performances of M. Nedubeble. Could one of these faces be that of M. Nedubeble? For that matter, given the shifting, protean descriptions of her appearance, could all the faces be hers?
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While the act was regarded as a somewhat scandalous novelty in London, and as avant-garde art in Paris and Berlin, in America it was reported as stage magic, a reversal of the popular illusion of the disappearing woman. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune from 1928, the debunker of fraudulent mediums and skeptic of the supernatural Rose Mackenberg, working from second-hand accounts of Nedubeble from Europe, proposed several possible mechanisms for Nedubeble’s slow appearance, such as a half-silvered mirror in front of the stage, or a projected image.
She and Bess Houdini saw the act in person in Manhattan in 1932. In a letter to her niece (and fellow investigator) Julia Sawyer, Houdini says:
Afterward, Mac and I sat in a coffee shop on Broadway until 4am dissecting [Nedubeble’s performance]—at one point the manager came over and asked Mac to please stop drawing on the tablecloth. It’s not Pepper’s Ghost; I’ll wager my left leg on that! And Mac used that little flashlight of hers to check for a scrim. I let my program “slip” after the performance, and in retrieving it managed to get a good look at the floor where she had stood, which seemed solid enough. We managed to rule out every effect either of us had ever seen! It is clear that the artist has a deep understanding of the human eye and mind.
Knallkopf cites this paragraph in his book as evidence from an expert investigator that Nedubeble’s act was not a stage illusion. Usiku Onekana, however, points to a possible followup mention of the performance in a letter from Sawyer to Houdini from 1934:
Did Mac tell you her new theory on Appearing? If she’s right, then M.N. is an extraordinary woman indeed.
Mackenberg lived in Manhattan—on her own in a brightly lit apartment “because I get tired of dark rooms”—until her death in 1968, and during that time never publicly presented this “new theory”. Onekana, however, documents passages from Mackenberg’s correspondence with Houdini and Sawyer and others to support her own theory, to which we will return.
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The author and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn saw the performance at the Bar Oscuro in Havana in 1941. Her husband, also a writer, had seen performances in both Paris and Madrid in the ‘20s and claimed it was a sham, no more than “an hour on a hard seat all to see nothing.”
Which is, by all accounts, what he saw this time. Two minutes into the performance, a man—later identified as a local priest who had been drinking in the bar since noon—tipped back his stool, waving a gun and shouting, “This is no miracle! It is a trick of the she-devil by use of a mirror, that tool of female vanity and deceit!” He got off three shots at the stage before Gellhorn took the gun from him.
The audience fled, and the police closed the bar for their investigations, so it is unknown if Nedubeble appeared that night.
The location is a hotel now, with the former dance floor and stage used as the lobby. If you ask, and offer a small tip, the staff will show you a small round stain behind the counter that they will tell you is a drop of her blood.
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The Havana show is the last confirmed performance of “Appearing Nightly”. After the end of World War II, a number of copycat acts sprang up, some claiming to be the original, but they never gained the popularity—or notoriety—of the pre-war era and soon faded away. As Onekana says, “After 1945, our interest was drawn to a greater, indeed, a global stage, and it is there, world-wide, that we must look for Nedubeble’s influence.”
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The 2016 book “Unnatural Appearances” by University of Chicago professor Adam Knallkopf et al. is based around the analysis of a five-minute reel of film discovered in St. Petersburg in 1998. The first section of the book is based on a paper by Knallkopf from 2006 in which he argues that the footage is one of the segments of the lost Berlin film, taken from the beginning of the act well before Nedubeble appears.
The image itself is difficult to interpret, being almost entirely blank, the blackness broken only by the heavy flicker of film grain, scratches, dust, and lens artifacts.
But Knallkopf contends that certain persistent vertical features are the folds of a curtain, and the slightly brighter bottom third of the frame is a floor. Much of his time is spent on a curved feature at screen-left, which he identifies as the back of a bentwood chair in the art nouveau style, identical to that depicted in the original “Appearing Nightly” poster from London.
The first half of the book expands upon this analysis, with chapters by experts on video enhancements such as image stacking and machine-learning-based noise reduction to clarify the image, chemical testing of the film base and emulsion to show that it is compatible with European products of the time, and case studies of motion pictures and other arts “liberated” from Germany to Russia after the war, all to support Knallkopf’s assertion that this footage is, in fact, part of the lost 1929 film from Berlin.
The second half of Knallkopf’s book uses the enhanced film footage, along with historical accounts—including the London poster—to reconstruct the stage layout. He then uses this reconstruction to methodically rule out any physical explanation for Nedubeble’s act. He dedicates an entire chapter to the failures of Mackenberg, Houdini, Sawyer, and other professional skeptics to explain the effect. Another chapter rules out mass hypnosis, induced hysteria, or even the drugging of the audience. He even spends a short chapter disputing a few radical claims that the performance and its entire history is a fictional construct; we can be sure, he says, that an act that Ernest Hemingway witnessed three separate times is as real as flesh and blood.
At the end of this book-length refutation of any physical, “natural” explanation for Nedubeble’s act, Knallkopf—serious scholar that he is—stops short of making any claim of the supernatural; he leaves that leap for the readers to take or not, as they choose. The closest he gets to such a claim is at the conclusion to his foreword, in which he says, “When we discount any trickery of the woman on the stage, what we are left with is nothing short of miraculous.”
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But why this focus on these few minutes of film in which everyone agrees M. Nedubeble does not appear? Knallkopf’s book goes to great lengths to base its argument on the formal notion of refutability, that is, to disprove the claim that Nedubeble’s act was a trick or stage illusion.
But that brings up the question, “Why this meticulous academic, scientific argument to prove that the action was supernatural, to appeal to the miraculous?”
To understand this, we need to return to the work of Usiku Onekana and her 2019 book, “Appearing Nightly”. Onekana has been fascinated by Nedubeble since as a girl encountering a mention of the performance in a documentary on the influence of African and African American culture in the Parisian arts scene of the early twentieth century.
As an undergraduate, Onekana wrote a brief paper on advertisements for Nedubeble’s performances that shook the scholarly word to its loftiest towers. The cursive “M.” on the London handbill had always been assumed to have been a shortened form of “Miss” or “Madam”, or perhaps a British confusion over the correct abbreviation of “Mademoiselle”. Comparing similar cursive scripts from posters of the period, Onekana shows that the spiraled tail of the letter “M” and the following dot might in fact form a lower-case letter “i”.
“Mi Nedubeble,” Onekana points out, is Esperanto for “I, Undeniable.”
Onekana’s book spirals out from that simple insight to sweep away all of Knallkopf’s conclusions.
Onekana contends that Knallkopf’s evocation of the supernatural—with its assumption that the truth is unknowable—and of the miraculous—with its implication of a hierarchy of natural and beyond-natural power—are intended to remove the deliberation and agency from Nedubeble herself.
Whereas the skeptics’ focus on some sort of trick or illusion works to remove the responsibility from the audience.
Onekana herself, however, lays the burden entirely on that audience. Her remarkable claim—supported by a clear-eyed reading of accounts from that audience, from Stein to Mackenberg and beyond—is that during Nedubeble’s act the performer is always there on stage. It is the spectators who, shaken from their assumptions by the strangeness of the setting and by Nedubeble willful persistence, slowly awake to her presence.
In Onekana’s words, “The extraordinary act of the woman, ‘I, Undeniable’, was to stand there, apparent, nightly, year after year, insisting on being seen.”
Copyright © 2021 by Gregory Norman Bossert