Longtime D.C. entertainer Sylvia Traymore Morrison knew as a child that she was destined to leave her mark in the pages of history. Endearing racial, gender and social obstacles, she still continues to push past boundaries delivering a spotlight for Black entertainers.
Morrison, 63, chronicles the rise and fall of her career , explaining why she never fully reached her “big break,” in her self-published autobiography, “Almost There, Almost. The Many Faces of Sylvia Traymore Morrison,” which also inspired a documentary on her life that she says is currently filming.
“They had never seen a Black female doing impressions before, no one had and I was good,” said Morrison.
She said, that even though she was able to perform for celebrities including Ali and Whitney Houston, she believes that gender and race were two main obstacles that prevented her from reaching her full potential.
Though diligent at her craft, Morrison found difficulty in being taken seriously as a Black female impressionist, facing discrimination at local nightclubs that rejected both her race and gender. She said that it was difficult to book consistent gigs.
Although Morrison said she has submitted her autobiography to several universities in the D.C. area, she said only Georgetown University, The George Washington University and American University actually carry her book in their libraries. She said that Howard University and Spelman College, in Atlanta, have declined to put her book in their libraries.
“Georgetown, George Washington and American University have put my book into their library, but Spelman College and Howard University won’t but they will never give me a straight answer as to why,” Morrison said. The AFRO’s requests for comment were not returned, from either institution, before deadline.
Morrison’s career began after she enrolled in Spelman and entered the Miss Black America pageant in 1973, where she won 2nd runner up at the national competition and gained notoriety as a female impressionist.
“I knew that all I needed to do was to get on that stage to perform and my career would take off,” she said. “I was so good at what I do.”
Even though Morrison did not win first place, her abilities to sing, dance and impersonate famous people gave her the opportunity to perform for the American troops in Germany that same year.
“When I found out that there was a possibility of going to Europe, that was honestly way more important to me than going to college,” she said.
According to Morrison, she was asked by the manager of the music group “A Taste of Honey,” who also managed the Germany tour, to audition for comedian Redd Foxx and his management team in Los Angeles, California. Foxx signed her to his team.
“I would address myself as a comedian/impressionist but actually, I never really had to. There were so few people doing it, let alone a Black female, so the industry labeled me
themselves as just an impressionist and the title stuck,” she said.
The breadth of her talent soon afforded her the opportunity to host a roast in honor of Muhammad Ali, at the Apollo Theatre in New York City in 1979, during the prime of his boxing career.
“I was so nervous because I didn’t have a script, but Ali was so pleasantly shocked that a female was going to be impersonating him…and they loved me,” Morrison said.
After performing as Muhammad Ali, Morrison began working with “Saturday Night Live” as an associate writer, a position that, at the time, had not been held by many black women.
“Nobody knew who Jay Leno, Robin Williams, David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld were,” Morrison said. “ I worked with all these guys before they made it and they just thought I’d be the biggest thing ever.” Morrison performed at the same time Black female comics such as Loretta “Moms Mabley” Aiken and LaWanda “Aunt Esther” Page were finding success.
“I don’t believe I was put here as the first black female impressionist to just die out,”
Morrison said. “So, I’ll just keep going.”
Sylvia Traymore Morrison will host the Maryland Night in Disguise: A Masquerade Ball & Roast in Lanham, Maryland at The Club House, 5901 Forbes Blvd. on Dec. 19.