But not really. Not long before the show was to debut, I had a chance to speak with McDonald about her character, Lottie Gee, a woman who fascinated us both, it emerged, because she was so unknown despite having once been humongously famous. A white mob torched one of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in America. Lottie Gee liked to tell people that she was from Kentucky — and it’s true, she grew up in a house in Newport, Ky. — but Newport is a satellite town to Cincinnati, and that’s what she was in reality, a Cincinnati girl (like Mamie Smith, who grew up an all-but-literal stone’s throw across the Ohio River from Gee and would probably have known her as a girl). After a brief tour, it opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall, well North of the main theatre district. Joshua Henry as Noble Sissle and Brandon Victor Dixon as Eubie Blake in the new revival of “Shuffle Along.”, Lyle Ashton Harris for The New York Times. If I sneezed on a rainy day I’d never see a sunny one. The boxes were elegant. Except, never completely. Savion Glover slouches a little. That evening, he went to see “Shuffle Along” on assignment. Some would dance; others would simply present themselves. There is slight reason to suspect that his real name may have been Redmond, though whether that was a first or last name, we cannot say. The list of names alone, of those whose careers “Shuffle” hatched in the original show and later productions, is enough to establish its influence on American theater and song as they played out over the rest of the 20th century: Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Nat King Cole, Florence Mills (one of the greatest who ever lived, said those who heard her sing). Synopsis. It broke boundaries, no doubt, but mainly through its success, and by having great pop tunes. “We have seven, so you’re actually coming in on the two.” The dancers picked up Glover’s minuscule tinkering within two to four tries. They also include the claim that in 1852, Lane’s skeleton was placed on display at a music hall in Sheffield, England, but in truth he was still dancing in London in 1852, before he vanished as thoroughly as it is possible to vanish. It’s not the slouch of an old man, not stiff — or the diffident slouch of a young one, for that matter — it’s somehow part of his movement, closer maybe to how boxers crouch, but relaxed. “Like that, like that,” talking while he danced. Shuffle! When the rehearsal was over, I spent an hour with Glover in a little side room off the rehearsal space. The plot of Shuffle Along surrounded a run for mayor by two men, with the loser taking on the role as police chief. A guest post & edition by Brian D. Valencia When Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921, it marked the return of all-black musical shows to Broadway after nearly a decade-long silence. Students first examine scenes and songs from the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, experiencing this celebratory text that transformed American musical theater and was created through the collaboration of Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, F. E. Miller, and Aubrey Lyles. By 1948, the song’s origins had been scrubbed. The great one took Gee on as an understudy and protégée, and her career took off. Also here, in the corner opposite where I sat, stood Daryl Waters, who worked on the music for both “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Noise/Funk.” And starring in this show — although she wasn’t there that day, except as an energy — was Audra McDonald, the powerhouse actress-singer and Winner of Six Tony Awards, a phrase that has begun to trail her name like a title. Williams went on after Walker’s death to a whole third phase in his career, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies. Neither was her “Shuffle” co-star Florence Mills, who was according to most witnesses one of the great stage singers of her age. (His life would get only more interesting — over a decade later, Franklin D. Roosevelt named him an American minister to Liberia.) Or borderline racist. This brand new adaptation brings back the original musical revue, which broke racial barriers when it premiered in 1921 and helped launch the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. No, I don’t care for Baltimore.”. It was announced that the pioneering blues singer Mamie Smith would appear in a show called “Struttin’ Along.” Nineteen hundred twenty-one: the year of “Shuffle Along” and the year Mamie’s “Crazy Blues” became the first true black pop success. Everybody knows it’s terrible.” Because it was racist? He was onstage. A newspaper’s depiction of Juba performing at Vauxhall Gardens in London in 1848. But it emerged from a single crude reality: African-American people were not allowed to perform onstage for much of the 19th century. Expressive, complex, physically taxing. In the end he, too, suffered an onstage collapse. He grew up in Florida and California. BlackPast.org is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization. It ought to die out, and we are trying hard to kill it.” Walker said that 110 years ago. Otherwise, it was a blacks-in-blackface production. But this turned out rather beautifully not to have been the case. Shuffle Along was Florence Millsâs Broadway debut, but she had been a performer long before that. The original “Shuffle” run lasted something like 500 nights, a record, they said, and it toured in different forms for years. In order to deal with the crush of patrons, the city had to alter the traffic pattern around the theater, turning a stretch of 63rd into a one-way street. All donations are tax deductible. Brown’s other two sentences on Lane are anti-factual. Or rather, that’s the kind of simplistic explanation that an actual dance scholar would quibble with every word of, but it’s trueish. Pictures suggest he favored black, dark ties. This is what Lester Walton was saying in 1921 and what he was trying to make happen at the Lafayette Theater. A boy even younger than Diamond. And Diamond would dance in blackface. Well, my life was simply a bundle of “ifs” and nerves. By singing about the old mammy days, when don’t you know, nobody minded a bit being called “chocolate drop,” Williams and Walker were laughing back at the white audiences who were laughing at them — with an irony that said out the side of its mouth, Are they actually buying this? It was when she understood that the diva, as a type, operates principally out of fear, that Gee’s behavior opened up to her somewhat. The show is a revue of songs by Eubie Banks, the great composer who helped break down racial barriers in the landmark 1921 musical ËShuffle Along,' the first Broadway musical written, directed by and starring African-Americans. When the scene started, she was captivating to see do her thing. We may not know why we know it, how we heard it (from an old musical? I simply let the mirror lie there. Mencken and Carl Van Vechten. This new show would be unlike any of the previous revivals (1932 and 1952), most of which were failures, some of which never even made it to the stage. It’s questionable whether Truman even knew who wrote it. Energy food — goat meat, mac and cheese, yams. It was, How do I keep pushing against this thing in order to be what I need to be?” He asked it with a real urgency that made his chin quiver. Langston Hughes said more than once that “Shuffle Along” was the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. He would stop and flash out some blazing routine. White Studio/Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. There could have been no Sam Beckett without Bert Williams. She was a chorus girl, a “dancing pick” (a “pickaninny,” in blackface). â¦ The show was booked to run at the Grand Opera House in Washington, but according to a newspaper report, the manager of the house had objected to Williams and Walker’s having an “orchestra leader who was a colored man.” The musicians, it was felt, wouldn’t like to see “a black director.” The New York Morning Telegraph of Nov. 18, 1899, ran a startling headline, “WILLIAMS AND WALKER, SENEGAMBIAN COMEDIANS, CAUSE TROUBLE,” on top of its report: Not so long ago they were content to fill a place upon the vaudeville stage at rapidly increasing compensation. “Look at those boxes,” he gasped. But âShuffle Along etc.â has no actual story or plot, undeveloped characters, and a lot of historical lectures. No longer blackface enough. Around 1905, she got her start singing with a jubilee choir, one of the dozens of choral troupes that formed in the wake of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ global success. She was sort of dreamily sashaying around one hip at a time, chewing her cheek, looking up, into her head. She was a star. I asked. They wouldn’t be claiming power. Shuffle Along is an African-American musical revue with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and a connecting plot about a mayoral race, written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. “He defies all competition on ‘the light fantastic,’ ” they wrote in Boston. “Yes,” he said. And I soon had the opportunity. It never hurts to know Scott Rudin, either. No, the very innovation that Williams and Walker had introduced — the reason their productions were so important to Broadway and black theater and the creation of “Shuffle Along” — was that their shows had a new kind of coherence. Each couple was expected to do something distinctive. In the one (cartoonish) picture of the Ethiopian Serenaders that includes him, he is indistinguishable from the others, from the white men. Shuffle Along (1921 - 504 performances) was the first major production in more than a decade to be produced, written and performed entirely by African Americans. It was 1964 in The Pittsburgh Courier. They take their seats. He played banjo and tambourine too, but those who saw him said he was the greatest dancer they’d ever witnessed, like Charles Dickens, who in his “American Notes” remembered having watched Juba dance in New York City. The report concludes menacingly: “These young men are likely to wake up with a start some morning.”. The manager of the theater took a positive stand this time, and said he would close his doors rather than violate the rule against letting Negroes occupy the orchestra chairs. To be sitting below a black man or woman, looking up — that made many whites uncomfortable. And he loved it — he saw it several times in the end. It was easy to articulate his relationship to the tradition: He was the pinnacle of it. Everybody’s hands floated at their sides. There were spinoffs. McDonald singled out one facet of Gee’s personality — her “diva” qualities, like frequently canceling shows for illnesses real and imagined, for instance — as having been the thing that “frightened” her when taking the role. It was dark and gray and pounding rain that day, as hard as I had ever seen it rain in New York. The encyclopedias say William Henry Lane, but the lone source for that is a white theatrical agent turned journalist turned amateur historian named Thomas Allston Brown, who was not the type to use footnotes, and who anyway did not enter the entertainment world until years after the supposed Lane was dead. In 1900, they did “Sons of Ham,” a sort of variety-farce, full of “oddities hard to describe.” It boasted a “carload of special scenery and electrical effects,” as well as “a chorus of handsome colored girls, 30 in number.” Besides that, it featured “a company of picked talent,” among whom was one Aida Overton. Two dishonest partners in a grocery store, Sam and Steve, both run for mayor in Jimtown, USA. A white critic wrote about “Shuffle Along” around the same time Lester Walton did — the reviews were just days apart. She worked with Sidney Bechet and Doc Cheatham and was a mentor to Josephine Baker. Walton and Hogan wrote songs together, and it was Hogan who first brought Walton to New York, as a kind of business manager. JESSIE: Donât start minding or fault-finding, No matter how dark oneâs path may grow. So, Barnum had this Irish kid, John Diamond, doing Juba dancing in his shows. That’s probably where Barnum discovered him. Wolfe is a big old deal in the theatrical world — winner of two Tonys, for directing “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” as well as “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk,” which revolved around Savion Glover’s talents, telling the saga of African-American history by tracing the evolution of tap. By the end (the last “true” “Shuffle” performance happened on June 23 in Atlantic City), relations were so strained between the two sides that some people walked offstage during “Auld Lang Syne.”. A song written by African-Americans used as a presidential campaign theme — it would take until Barack Obama’s candidacy for that to happen again. HARRY WALTON: Your love for me is heavânly beacon, Guiding me through loveâs darkest night. He couldn’t just throw away the talking and leave the song-and-dance bits. They had to happen in the here and now, and they had to be authentic and good, or else — bomb. But just in time I caught myself. The women in the clip wore high-collared Victorian dresses, the men black tailcoats. Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Eubie Blake and myself to birth ‘Shuffle Along.’ Few people know, but Bert Williams playing in Ziegfeld Follies and [being] the only Negro playing Broadway at that time was literally a father to the four of us during the birth of ‘Shuffle Along’ and gave us every blessing and advice at his masterly command. A problem: The music hall had no orchestra pit, and this show needed an orchestra. “Shuffle Along,” as it is named, makes brave attempts to entertain the white folks in the intervals between its gorgeous songs. That was one of the first things Wolfe mentioned when I asked about “creative challenges” he encountered in dealing with the source text. A kind of multipurpose performance space, not very big, not very nice, “sandwiched in between garages,” Walton wrote, and “little known to the average Broadway theatergoer.” You could rent the place for the night. He was going to find someone to back the production, especially given the other people he could recruit. Not just any Juba dancer, but the second-best in the world. The encyclopedias say he was born in Providence, R.I., around 1825, but an English journalist who interviewed him for The Manchester Times in 1848 — the only journalist who ever spoke to him and wrote about him, as far as can be determined — stated clearly that he was born in New York in 1830, a date that corresponds better with later reports of his age. . His smile is inwardly pleased, sublime. I was tempted to read his death, at least as it related to “Shuffle Along,” as a tragedy. Diamond, knowing that Barnum’s wrath was coming, ran off. “Not da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-DA. Maybe it will fall and shatter. He had at least four more hours of pacing and dancing to do after this. It was, he said, “something I understand from having been raised a Negro.”. Their 1907-9 show “Bandanna Land” played for capacity houses on tour and at the Majestic Theater at Columbus Circle, a much more legitimate “Broadway” house than the Sixty-Third Street Music Hall could ever aspire to be, and those audiences included, according to a much younger Lester Walton, “hundreds of white theatergoers.”. Dickens had written under the pen name Boz, so when Juba went to London in 1848, under the sponsorship of a white blackface minstrel named Gilbert Ward Pelham (the leader at that time of the Ethiopian Serenaders, with whom Juba also toured), the young dancer was billed as Boz’s Juba. has been re-made into an expanded version called Shuffle! ... Shuffle Along, an all-black musical comedy by a quartet of African American vaudeville performers, premieres on Broadway. His response to the show was positive — “Speaking as a colored American,” he wrote, “I think ‘Shuffle Along’ should continue to shuffle along at the Sixty-Third Street Theater for a Long Time.” And when he went back in October, he celebrated that the show was now “in its sixth month” at the music hall, assuring readers that the fact would be “pregnant with historical significance” for anyone “conversant with the ups and downs of colored theatricals” and all “the abortive, yet well-intended efforts of the past.” But Walton’s response was complicated too, or shadowed by something. There is a pain, and the sense that she’s going to miss an opportunity, and that she’s trying to desperately stake her rightful claim on what is hers.”, McDonald stopped short of reading Gee as a character to pity. A small donation would help us keep this accessible to all. It was later performed at the Sixty-third Street Theatre in New York City, New York in May, 1921. It is quite possible that the 1920s got their roar from Shuffle Along, the musical (with an all-black cast and creative team) that introduced jazz and syncopation to the Broadway stage. His masterpiece was the song “Nobody,” a nihilistic ditty one of his characters sang to himself when the penny-tossers walked away, a sort of song-monologue, as weird and dark, you might sense, when Williams introduced it in 1906 as it sounds today. Outside the circus tent, in a tavern or a theater, he and Diamond would compete against each other in challenge matches. The film reels were retrieved from the MoMA archives in 2004. The cast of the original âShuffle Alongâ 1921. Plot & Creation. Not blackface but black faces. Movie night at the Obamas’, curated by Mitch McConnell. “I will always believe,” she told that interviewer in Baltimore back in 1930, “that if Miller and Lyles and Sissle and Blake had stuck together, the colored stage would have been entirely different.”. “Because it was bad.” (And, it seems to me, because it was racist, or racially offensive;a typical line: “You ain’t got no business being no mayor and you knows you ain’t, what you talking about being mayors.”) What was a black director doing even messing with that in 2015? Now, Walton wrote, he was “curious to learn if ‘Shuffle Along’ would find its way into the category of what is known, in the language of the performer, as a ‘white folks’ show.’ ” Could the production, in other words, manage to be both black enough to have “it” and at the same time white enough to make loads of money? She was in Baltimore with a show called “Harlem Vanities.” An anonymous (tragically anonymous) reporter with the local Afro-American caught up with her and did the best article ever written about her, one of just a couple that bring you close. The show opened in New York City at Daly's 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921 and ran 504 performances. At a grand piano in the orchestra pit sits Mr. Eubie Blake, composer of all the music. Blacks, too, could exist in this space that was neither-nor. In Juba, you drum on your body, slapping your chest and knees and the soles of your feet. He had fought in the war as an artillery man, and before that spent most of his teens in Europe, in Leipzig and Paris, studying with tutors. And now Barnum was without his Juba dancer. Meanwhile, no matter what you did, some seams were liable to show. “The book,” he said, meaning the script, the nonmusical part of the show. As he sang the song, Walker began to sing “in a thick-lipped manner” and forgot the lyrics. Among the cast were Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Paul Floyd, Lottie Gee, Gertrude Saunders, Roger Matthews, Mattie Wilkes, Lawrence Deas, and Adelaide Hall. Shuffle Along, a musical comedy by composer Eubie Blake and lyricist Noble Sissle which featured an all-black cast, was the most significant achievement in black theatre of its time. The spectators wouldn’t accept it, or the laws and civic codes wouldn’t permit it, or Barnum himself just couldn’t deal with it. But Wolfe’s problem, in trying to resurrect “Shuffle,” wasn’t as simple as what Whittaker prescribed. Their musical comedies were musical, but they were also comedies, meaning they were plays. A long open room with extremely high ceilings (productions have to be able to wheel in huge Broadway props sometimes). He’s holding a tambourine and looks about to jump up and start dancing. Specifically, Walton wanted “to observe how the white people in the audience took to Roger Matthews, the tenor, and Lottie Gee, the prima donna, singing ‘Love Will Find a Way.’ ”. The gameplay in Shuffle! This was the falling out between Sissle and Blake (the writers of the songs) and Miller and Lyles (the writers of the book). At the same time, he was haunted and wounded by having to wear it. Gee is one of those figures — one of the countless, when you’re talking about this world of early black music and dance — whose biographies begin with phrases like “Details remain obscure.” With digging, she can be recovered somewhat. When Juba’s great success in England was noted in a Providence paper in 1848, the article made no mention of his having been from there, only that he “formerly gave exhibitions of his skill in this city, at the ninepenny entertainments.” But he had done that in every city on the East Coast. It was still spotty, but when there’s nothing, every little item in a small-town newspaper is a mountain. It was an implausible-sounding idea that succeeded wildly. It â¦ In approaching “Angels in America” 23 years ago, he first keyed into the notion of “performance of self” that runs through the play. Or the Sixty-Third Street Music Hall, as it was more properly called. Shuffle definition is - to mix in a mass confusedly : jumble. The night we opened at the Sixty-Third Street Music Hall, New York, I did something that even the least superstitious of persons has a sneaking little belief in — I broke a mirror. Some of the cast went one way, some the other, some wandered off. It was allowed, for actual black people to perform this way, starting around the 1840s — in a very few cases at first, and then increasingly — and there developed the genre, as it were, of blacks-in-blackface. Williams and Walker were so successful that they changed the profile of black entertainment in America, vastly for the better, but also in ways that pushed up against boundaries. This happened most often when Glover would spot a mistake or something in his own choreography that he didn’t like and clap his hands to make everything quiet. George Wolfe had taken the cast on a field trip to view them. A rehearsal of "Shuffle Along" this month. In those last years he grew more famous than ever but was mostly doing shtick. People gambled. It would seem very loose to us, but it was different from vaudeville, closer to drama. Gee’s obituary mentions that “she popularized such melodies as ‘Love Will Find the Way’ and ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’ in the Miller-Lyles, Sissle-Blake production ‘Shuffle Along.’ ”. They could hide their blackness behind a darker blackness, a false one, a safe one. The plot of the first âShuffle Alongâ was mainly to allow an excuse for the singing and dancing. In 1947 (more than 25 years after the show debuted), the composer Noble Sissle remembered in a guest column for The New York Age that it had been only “the great heritage left by Bert Williams and George Walker” that “had made it possible for F.E. He was going to burn it all into nothing. The company of 'Shuffle Along' The detailed attention to period performance styles is exceptional, as is the degree to which the stars all pull their weight in the galvanic dance numbers. Sam keeps his promise to appoint Sam as chief of police, but they begin to disagree on petty matters. They had teams of supporters. SHUFFLE ALONG has a new book and is directed by George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Savion Glover, and stars six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, Tony â¦ He had a laptop out and was showing me clips he had watched for inspiration after being asked to choreograph the show: the Nicholas Brothers skipping across tabletops in “Stormy Weather” (the sequence that Fred Astaire is said to have called the greatest dance number ever filmed, a superlative that, when you watch the scene, seems like an obvious thing to say). She lived into her 80s, remaining much loved and respected in the arts community of Los Angeles, where she died in 1973. Around 1893, he joined a troupe called the Mastodon Minstrels, and it was while performing with them that he came to know a fellow cast member named George Walker, a young man from Kansas who was to become his closest friend and creative partner for nearly 15 years. Then some eerie old footage of a “cakewalk,” from an early black vaudeville performance, one of the few that were ever filmed. It was the day after the rehearsal, and we were at the Music Box Theater on 45th Street, where the new production will be staged. People whispered that she married him so he would chirp like a cricket about her in the papers, praising her performances. The coverage he received from the English press from 1848 to 1852 is almost exhausting to follow, it grew to be so extensive, mostly ecstatic in its praise. Do you find this information helpful? Sam wins with the help of a crooked campaign manager. ‘Well, Lottie hasn’t been doing so good. . The landmark production renewed the public’s interest in black theatricals and marked a decided turning point in the history of black entertainment in the United States. But racial genius grips the cast and you when the songs begin. Gee is quoted: I used to be an awful superstitious little fool. Was identified in the front three rows to make happen at the same cast was over, and a of... 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