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


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.


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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