This is a follow up to my post last week about “Dear White American Theater.” Shuffle Along launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, Adelaide Hall and Paul Robeson in the 1920’s.
This was recreated for Broadway in April 2016, subtitled “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” It dives deep focusing on the challenges of mounting the original production and its effect on Broadway and on race relations. And it portrayed the characters honestly, as they were, without “blackface” and silly antics. And of course “the music.” The white audiences went “head over heels” for it.
Music, the great communicator!
I found this a gem of an article and something I had never heard of. It’s why I blog…..to resurrect the stories of the past, especially where inequality landed or where women were silenced.
On May 23, 1921, a fast-moving, groundbreaking jazz musical danced into New York City—and by the end of its triumphant run, its Black creators were responsible for the most unlikely entertainment success stories of the 1920s, a watershed moment for racial representation in America.
With the curtain rising against the backdrop of widespread racial discrimination and a theater industry struggling to rebound after a global pandemic, Shuffle Along challenged social norms and defied the odds to become the first Broadway musical with an all-Black cast and creative team to become a phenomenon. It ran for 504 performances.
No one was sure if America was ready for thoughtful portrayals of Black characters. There were threats of a race riot on opening night—and the fallout could have been deadly. But from the first jazzy, syncopated beats of composers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Manhattan audiences fell head over heels.
Shuffle Along was one of the longest running, and most profitable, shows of the season. It changed traffic patterns in midtown and stimulated the nightlife uptown. It led to Josephine Baker becoming an international star, and one of its songs, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” helped reelect the President of the United States a couple decades later.
In WHEN BROADWAY WAS BLACK, author Caseen Gaines tells the captivating story of Sissle and Blake, along with comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who caught lightning in a bottle to kickstart the Harlem Renaissance and change perceptions of Blacks one performance at a time, while opening doors for generations of artists of color to run through—a timely story of sacrifice, setbacks, and successes along the road to the American Dream.
WHEN BROADWAY WAS BLACK will be published on February 7, 2023, Eubie Blake’s birthday, by Sourcebooks. Preorder it today at WhenBroadwayWasBlack.com