Shuffle Along, or How a Musical Can Teach Us to Remember and Treasure Black Art

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Enjoying my summer in NYC for an NEH grant.


I have always been a closet fanatic of musicals.  I say “closet” as my bank account does not possess the sort of balance required to see the array of musicals I’d have to see in order to be considered a true connoisseur (I have never seen things like Cats or Phantom, for example).  But I do enter lotteries and try to score rush tickets, so I’ve gotten to see things from The Lion King to Rent to The Book of Mormon.  When alone in my apartment, if I’m not fervently listening to my latest audiobook (the current one being Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped), I’m singing along to Broadway showtunes.  Believe me, I’ve put on some pretty elaborate productions complete with Rockette kick lines while washing dishes and making my bed.  Idina Menzel would be proud.

I’m spending two weeks in the great New York City for a pretty amazing National Endowment of the Humanities seminar called “Freedom for One, Freedom for All? Abolition and Woman Suffrage 1830-1920.”  As history is cyclical, it is so fascinating to see how relevant the issues of voting rights, the right to love, and the disenfranchisement of people of color are still so stubbornly present in today’s culture.  It’s been an amazing seminar so far, but quite emotionally intense with a pretty hefty workload.  I’m still able to see some of New York, but on each train ride, you can find me frantically reading and annotating our readings to and from my daily adventure.

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Our two core texts for the institute.

Even though I’m trying desperately to save pennies, thanks to my new friend Laurie, I heard that the musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed was closing for good. The post-reconstruction era and the Harlem Renaissance are two of my favorite times in history to teach. Not to mention that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Audra McDonald live.  And Tony winner Billy Porter.  And Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.  And nominee Joshua Henry…  And well, you get the point.  The show is pretty much packed with some of the best talent on earth.

But tickets were sold out.  I refreshed the seatgeek app several times an hour hoping that someone would give up his ticket, and I put up on ad on Craigslist.  And then, on Saturday evening—the day before the show closing–some tickets suddenly popped up on the screen for the final show, and I typed in the numbers on my credit card faster than I could consider the price (I paid face value.  But still).  I would find out later that Audra McDonald called off and stated that she would not perform as the care of her baby comes first (did I mention that she tap dances, does incredible high kicks, and belts her esophagus out, all while in her second trimester?!), which is why so many people gave up their tickets.  I’m glad that I a) did not know this fact and b) was happy to see that Audra did in fact perform the show closing.   She is one phenomenal woman.  

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As seen outside the theater.  #truth

I’ve never even so much as gone to a movie by myself, so I was a little intrigued to go a large broadway show stag.  But I was fourth row center, so I figured that the performers will feel very much like my companions for the evening.  It was an amazing experience to be almost close enough that if a character was downstage, he or she could spit on me when they over-enunciated words.  It turns out that half of my row was solo, and so we found ourselves talking eagerly together in anticipation of the curtain opening.  

It was thrilling to be in the caffeine of the packed house.  And it really was packed, as people even stood and shifted their weight from foot to foot in their jagged line against the back wall of the theater.  The only seemingly empty seat in the house was the one to my left.  About two minutes before the opening note, an attractive man snuck into the seat next to me.  “You made it!” I exclaimed with such exuberance, I’m pretty sure that the people in our close vicinity thought that we were friends.

“I better have,” he said, wiping sweat off of his forehead.  “I called off in order to be here for this.”

“Oh?” I said.  “What show are you in?”

Motown the Musical,” he replied, looking a little embarrassed.

“What?! Cool! What role do you play?”  I was suddenly proud my solo seat family thought we were friends.

“Marvin Gaye.”

“That’s so awesome! That musical is on my list of musicals to see!”

The light went out a little bit in his eyes.  “You better go soon.  We close next week.”  

I had obviously struck a chord, and I stuttered a bit in my response.  “Oh man, that’s terrible.”

“Yeah,” he said, not making eye contact, “The social climate is changing.  It’s not one that’s as open for shows like us…”

He got cut off as the lights started to dim and people began cheering in anticipation at the start of the show.  I clapped and hollered too, but what he said stung and the irony was not lost on me.  Shows like us.  Shows featuring predominately Black casts?

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Attending an amazing play I saw last year, My Children! My Africa! with my brothers.

You see, the musical tells the story of the original 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which is the first Broadway play to feature jazz.  In reality, Shuffle Along broke many racial barriers, and Lin Manuel has even acknowledged that the famous and crazy popular Hamilton would not have been possible without Shuffle Along.  And I’ve found that most people in the community believe that Shuffle Along would have won Best Musical if not for Hamilton (in which case, we all would have heard of this amazing musical).

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The amazing cast

But the themes of the story are so relevant to today.  Here are some examples:

Orlando, Gay Rights, and Love is Love:  The musical was groundbreaking in that it was the first to successfully feature Black love  (it was also the first to allow Black people to sit in the orchestra section of the theater).  There is a powerful scene where the characters discuss the inclusion of a love scene in the musical.  They stress the dangers of doing so, as two actors in another Black ensemble were tarred and feathered for just touching hands in a show (true story). They ultimately decide to stand up for their beliefs, for love is love, and much to their surprise, the audiences accept the love song.  How the Black characters face dominant white culture’s definition of love, marriage, and displays of affection are so reminiscent in our current fight for gay equality.  There is a song called “Love Will Find a Way” that drives this point home, and the message throughout the musical is that love will always win.

Black Lives Matter and Gun Violence:  Audra McDonald’s character of Lottie Gee discusses that the racial tension and the fear of violence has caused her to buy a gun, and that she almost shot someone in Baton Rouge.  

Colorism:  The characters discuss how Aubrey Lyles, a dark skinned Black man, does not have access to the same sorts of privileges and access to opportunities as F. E. Miller, a light skinned Black character.  Even though the pair are a duo, they experience the brutal racism rampant in this time in vastly different ways.  It brings up interesting questions, such as what is the cause of the Black male body in eliciting fear?  Why are there interracial hierarchies, and in what ways are they are microcosm of (or emulate) the socially constructed racial hierarchies in the US as a whole?

Blackface and Black Resistance: I always shudder when I see people in blackface in minstrel shows, where white people paint themselves black and become horrific caricatures of Black people.  These shows were seeped in racism, and served to blow racist stereotypes of Black people all over the US like dandelion seeds.

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Before the final curtain call.

What’s interesting is that the Black characters in the original Shuffle Along paint themselves in blackface and don white gloves as well.  At first, I was horrified.  I mean, what’s up with that? But then the characters have a deep discussion about how wearing blackface allows them to be subversive.  We’ve gotta remember that this is 1921, and they are playing in front of audiences that wouldn’t dare shake their hands or ask for an autograph after the show.  And so wearing blackface allows them to a)  access white audiences in the first place, for it is in a medium white people are comfortable with and thus can perhaps hear/tolerate important, though provocative messages and b) stage a show that is at its core about an election. And we know that electoral and thus political rights had long been stripped from women and Black people.  1921 was not a safe time to discuss voting rights.  In the end, they are able to talk about the universal rights of all human beings under the safety of the ebony paint.

Black Art and Black Appropriation: It was eerie how what ultimately tore the original Shuffle Along apart and 2016 Shuffle Along apart are so similar.  The original was met with great acclaim, selling out audiences and making a substantial profit (even though they were snubbed for the usual 42 street Broadway area and were regulated to Uptown on 63rd street).  Yet,  Broadway shows ultimately re-appropriated the music and dancing, one of the reasons it was later rendered extinct.  One original Shutter Along star, Florence Mills, sang through significance illness until she ultimately dropped dead.  Why did she do this? Because she knew that if she didn’t star in the vaudeville shows, the shows would not continue, and her dancing and singing colleagues would be out of work as there were few opportunities for Black people to create and manifest art.  

And yet, this is what happened in 2016.   Even though Shuffle Along was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, it did not win one.  It got a big ole nope at the Superbowl of Musicals.  And that snub is telling when you analyze which shows (most who feature predominantly white casts) are reaping in the cash (Color Purple not included, which I am happy to say is doing really well).  And so we have to look at the social climate we’ve created, with its Trumping (pun intended) of empathy, community, and appreciation of diversity.

Audra McDonald tried her best to save the show.  She held on from exiting the show m, and even pushed back her West End performance so that the show could go on.  But when she couldn’t do it anymore and really need to into maternity leave for the health of her baby, the show, even though it was making money, cancelled. Ms. Mill’s round two? Audra was not the only big name to headline the show, and it put the best ensemble I have ever seen back on casting call lists. (Side note:  I  hope that Hamilton will help normalize color blind casting  to provide more opportunities for artists of color).

And so it was an emotional experience.  I cried a lot of tears, both because I was deliriously happy as it was the best live performance I have ever seen, but also because it is devastating that we live in the world where we are yet again killing Black art.   I wasn’t alone in my tears–much of the cast sobbed through the whole show and yet still danced and sang like the superstars they are.  It was the best singing and dancing I have ever seen live, and I am devastated that I can’t tell all of my loved ones to go see the phenomenon. 

And the audience couldn’t get enough.  It really was an embarrassment of riches seeing the triple threat of incredible acting, dancing, and singing.   We cheered, stomped, and clapped for the entire three hours, and I say three because the audience extended the show with their excessive clapping.  Oftentimes the cast could not begin their next number because people were on their feet screaming and drowning out any possible sound from the stage.  After the final bow, one of the actors ran up and gave his shiny black tap shoes to an eight year old boy in the front row.  It was one of the most moving gestures I have ever witnessed.  That boy will never forget how he felt during this show, and even though I’m not walking away with a concrete memento, neither will I.

In the end, we must remember this.  

In my NEH institute, we’ve been talking about the holes in the United States archives.  We know that those that “win” and those who are of the dominant perspective get to write history, but we don’t often think about whose voices and stories are represented in the hundreds of thousands of primary sources we keep in our federal, state, and local archives.  There is no denying it: our archives are mostly white and male.   We have literally destroyed the essence–the letters, the artifacts, the art, the possessions– of many Americans throughout our existence as a country.   Historians are just now trying to comb through to find those missing perspectives, to try to tell the stories that we have wiped out.

In one of the last songs, the only white character (one white cast member plays all white characters in the musical) states that no one will remember the cast and story of Shuffle Along.  And so this 2016 musical homage is a testament to the groundbreaking show where people put their lives at stake to present original Black written, directed, produced, and performed art.

And yet, the 2016 Shuffle Along does not have a CD I can sing along to the top of my lungs when I fold laundry or sweep my floor.  I beg that we right this wrong by having the beautiful and touching musical forever memorialized in CD form, otherwise this is yet again another hole in our archives.   I write this post in part because I want to be a part of the archive, a part of creating inclusive history in our collective memory.  I want to remember, and I want you to be able to remember too.

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Let’s celebrate art.  And let’s celebrate stories and perspectives not commonly heard.

So let’s celebrate art.  Especially art from those who have not always had the honor of standing ovations and roses thrown at feets. Because they deserve it.  And more importantly, we deserve it.  

From this point forward, let’s fill our archives with art from all of our demographics.  Let’s right our memories by remembering those who have sacrificed in order to give me a world where I can write a public blog about race without fear, and where a Black family can prosper in a white house built by slaves.  

Let us not forget our own agency to reimagine.  The road is paved with potholes, but we will keep shuffling along until we get there.  

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3 thoughts on “Shuffle Along, or How a Musical Can Teach Us to Remember and Treasure Black Art

  1. Pingback: Mass Media’s Deception Causing Division | From guestwriters

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