What if everybody knew… about the 1921 all-Black Broadway musical Shuffle Along, and its lasting impact on contemporary musical theater?
Shuffle Along was, in the words of Langston Hughes, the soundtrack that launched the Harlem Renaissance. Days after the show’s incredibly successful debut, a group of armed white men terrorized Tulsa, Oklahoma. So why do so many of us know about the tragedy, but most of us have never heard of the triumph?
The answer is a little counterintuitive.
Host and producer Dexter Thomas, ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow and a postdoctoral research associate in the Humanities Council, speaks to author Caseen Gaines, actor Amber Iman, and Princeton lecturer Catherine M. Young about why the first successful all-black musical keeps getting buried – but still influences us, 100 years later.
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“If Everybody Knew” is a new podcast brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Each episode highlights innovative research, new ideas, and untold stories in the humanities at Princeton and beyond. Our episodes are free, and available on our podcast page, or wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was inspired by the symposium, “Reactivating Memory: ’Shuffle Along’ and the Tulsa Race Massacre,” which was sponsored by a Humanities Council Magic Project and presented by the Lewis Center for the Arts. You can watch the full event, which included a reunion video with members of the cast and crew of the 2016, here. You can also access the symposium educator resources here. “Reactivating Memory” was also featured on the Department of African American Studies AAS Podcast with host Mélena Laudig and guests Michael J. Love, A.J. Muhammad, and Catherine M. Young. You can listen to that episode here.
About the Guests:
Caseen Gaines is a teacher, a pop culture historian, and the author of Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way. You can find out more about him here.
Catherine M. Young studies representation in popular culture, and also wrote an article we didn’t get to mention in the podcast, Don’t Blame Pregnancy for Shuffle Along Closing. She’ll be teaching a Humanistic Studies course on theater and the Tulsa Race Massacre next semester. You can find out more about her here.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
<< THEME SONG >>
What’s one thing you wish everybody knew? I’m your host and producer, Dexter Thomas, and that’s the question I’m here to ask in If Everybody Knew, a brand new podcast from the Humanities Council at Princeton. Every month I’ll talk to artists, journalists, and scholars, from Princeton and beyond, to get into the research, the ideas, and the untold stories that could change the world. Or, at least, maybe just the way you look at things. We’ll get into that a little more at the end of the show. But first, I want to ask you what comes to mind when you hear the phrase, ‘Shuffle Along’.
I’ve found that there’s three kinds of people when it comes to that phrase. The first group knows exactly what I’m talking about. That’s not a very big group. The second group, a little bigger, knows nothing about it. But I think maybe there’s a third group, who’s heard about it, but doesn’t realize, because they only know second hand. You might be in this group. I mean, I was. In my case, I knew it from this weird Daffy Duck cartoon I had on VHS when I was a kid, where Daffy is chasing Porky Pig, and then starts singing this song.
<< DAFFY DUCK SINGING: I’m just wild about Harry, and Harry’s wild about me…>> […]
NARRATION (Dexter):: We’ll get to how that happened later. But for those who are still wondering what Shuffle Along is, let me catch you up to speed. Shuffle Along was the first major all-black Broadway musical. It debuted in 1921, and was created by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who were two famous musicians, and Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller, two vaudeville comedians. And it absolutely changed everything. It introduced jazz to Broadway. It was where Josephine Baker got her start. Paul Robeson was part of the cast at one point. Nat King Cole was part of the orchestra for one of the revival shows. President Harry S. Truman used a song from Shuffle Along for his re-election campaign. And none other than Langston Hughes said that Shuffle Along was the thing that kicked off the Harlem Renaissance. I could keep going, but I’ll stop here. It ran for 504 performances on Broadway alone, which was absolutely unheard of. And then, it vanished. So, this episode isn’t really about Shuffle Along so much. It’s more about the vanishing part. About why we don’t know about it. So to get into that, I called up Caseen Gaines. He published a book about Shuffle Along this year, and it starts out with a story from before anyone knew that Shuffle Along was going to be big. As a matter of fact, on the opening night, the producers of the show thought they might be dead before the night was over. And it was all because of a song.
Caseen Gaines: Opening night of Shuffle Along 1921 the producers had actually received threats that white audiences were going to raze this theater to the ground if they did not cut out a subplot wherein Harry Walton and Jessie Williams, two characters in the show sang a love duet called “Love Will Find a Way.”
<<Audio: “Love Will Find a Way”>>
Then they have a kiss, a very tame, like kiss on the cheek end of this song, so prior to Shuffle Along, black people were on stage primarily for the pleasure of white audiences, which is to say, to make white audiences laugh at them, to make white audiences feel superior to them. Jezebels, mammies, you know, characters that were familiar and comforting to white audiences. But just a woman saying, I am in love with a man. Not, I want to go to bed with a man, but I want to be in a romantic relationship and let’s see where it goes from there…that was revolutionary in 1921. That was unheard of 1921.
NARRATION (Dexter): And just to clarify: it was revolutionary, it was unheard of, and it put everyone on stage in danger.
Caseen Gaines: You had Noble Sissle, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, literally at the stage door with the door open, expecting that they’re going to have to run uptown to Harlem if the crowd turns hostile. Eubie Blake, poor Eubie Blake was out in the orchestra pit conducting so he was stuck out there by himself. But, you know, there really was a very legitimate fear that things could turn violent. And I think it also highlights how, even in New York city, there was this concern. You know, when we think about Jim Crow era, we typically think about it quite pejoratively as having been a Southern issue, having been a Southern problem, but racism was alive and well in New York City and the North in 1921, just as racism is alive and well in New York city and the North in 2021. And so they were quite literally prepared to have a show that they believed in, you know, torn apart because of white folks. And yet they didn’t cancel the performance. They didn’t take the number out. They took personal precautions.
Dexter Thomas: They stood by the door.
Caseen Gaines: They stood by the door, but they were willing to take the chance and do it. And I think that’s really what is worth remembering about this moment.
NARRATION (Dexter):: It might seem hard to relate to the fear everyone was feeling on stage that night, especially now that we know that white audiences basically accepted the musical, and it went on to be a huge success. But just a few days later, the cast of Shuffle Along would be reminded of just how real the threat of violence really was. Shuffle Along debuted on Broadway on May 23rd. On the evening of May 31st, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a mob of armed white men entered Greenwood, a prosperous black business district also known as Black Wall Street. Within hours, the entire town was on fire. Thousands of black people were left homeless, a potential hundreds were killed. They’re still finding the bodies from this. But back on Broadway, the show went on. It had to.
Caseen Gaines: You know, the closest I ever got to finding out the casts sentiments about what occurred in Tulsa was Noble Sissle saying, in an unpublished memoir, that there was so much struggle and pain in the black community around the time of Shuffle Along’s opening, but in a way feels like that’s what made go see Shuffle Along. Black audiences in particular; that it provided joy, humor, it provided an opportunity to see black folks succeed. And I think when you look at the reviews in the black press around that period of time, what I was most moved by as a reader, not even a writer, and as a researcher was looking at articles that said: Shuffle Along provides hope for black people. The hopefulness in those sentiments in the early days of this show’s premiere is so striking and beautiful and overwhelming to me.
NARRATION (Dexter):: But it’s strange, right? As much people don’t like looking at the uglier parts of our history, of the things that people know about the spring of 1921, they’re more likely to know about Tulsa. The ugly part. And not Shuffle Along, one of the most triumphant moments of black art, or really, American art, of that entire decade. But in 2016, there was a moment where it looked like we might be starting to bring up some of those good memories. That year, the famous director George C. Wolfe created a new musical, called Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Long title, and a little confusing, I know. Anyway, this 2016 version … featured music from the original, but it wasn’t a remake. It was a musical about the original 1921 musical, telling the story of how Shuffle Along was created. And the cast was amazing. It featured Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, and some rising talent that before long, would be a well known name among serious theater fans.
Amber Iman: My name is Amber Iman and I’m an actor, writer, and activist.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Amber was still pretty new, especially compared to some of her co-stars, so she was a little nervous. But she says that one thing everyone had in common was that nobody really knew much about the 1921 musical before starting, So rehearsals were kind of like showing up to a history class.
Amber Iman: George C. Wolfe, who is our writer and director, is also just a lover of knowledge and he would find news clippings from 1921. Like if we were rehearsing on August 3rd he would have a newspaper from August 3rd, 1921. So you could see what was happening in the world – not even just with black people, just like what was going on in the world at that time.
Dexter Thomas: What were the conversations with other people in the cast as you’re learning this history that you realize that that you didn’t know before?
Amber Iman: We were all embarrassed.
Dexter Thomas: Wow.
Amber Iman: We were all, I mean, embarrassed in its different forms. It was just being astounded that we didn’t know this, you know, like Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, these musical theater legends, and we all knew a little bit but we were surprised at how much we didn’t know. The embarrassment is not true embarrassment because we understand the educational system, like, of course nobody was teaching us about Shuffle Along. So it was more like, you know, imagine how much else there is out there that we just have no clue about.
NARRATION (Dexter):: After months of learning and preparation, it was time to see if the show would live up to the hype. And there was a lot of hype. The show debuted. Reviews were positive, tickets were selling, and it was nominated for 10 Tony Awards. The night of the Tony’s came, and of the awards it had been nominated for, Shuffle Along won …zero. Hamilton had also debuted that year, and every one of the awards Shuffle Along was up for went to Hamilton, and then some. Hamilton ended the night with 16 awards. Soon after that, the producer of 2016’s Shuffle Along put out a press release saying that the show was closing …in a few weeks. Audiences were shocked. And I gotta be clear here – we don’t actually know why the producers decided to pull the plug. Maybe they didn’t think they could survive without those Tony Awards. But it was clear, at least to Amber, that the message being sent was that Broadway only had room for one story featuring black people – and that story was going to be the one that the majority was most comfortable with.
Amber Iman: Hamilton helped white people digest hip hop in a way that was tangible for them. So for them, that was groundbreaking. Ask any black person, or person of color, who goes to see Hamilton. Now it is stunning, what it does. And the musical is stunning. It’s really powerful, but like… across the street is black people telling the story about how black people literally changed history. Like honestly, put respect on both of them. We are telling a story of black people who came together at a time when there were no black people on Broadway doing what we did. They introduced jazz music to musical theater. It was the first jazz score on Broadway. It was the first time two black people stood on Broadway and sang love songs about each other. So for the industry to decide that our history wasn’t as important as their history was just like…okay. You really understand the business and the industry for what it is.
Dexter Thomas: And you later went on to be in Hamilton.
Amber Iman: Begrudgingly.
Dexter Thomas: Really?
Amber Iman: Absolutely. I did not want to do that show. Absolutely. And I’ve said it before It’s like…
NARRATION (Dexter):: Yes, you heard that right. Soon after Shuffle Along ended, she joined the national tour of Hamilton, where she played as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. If you saw Hamilton in 2018, that was her on stage. Matter of fact, if you already knew her name before listening to this, that’s very likely where you know her from. But you might not know how painful the beginning of that was for her, and a lot of other members of the cast..
Amber Iman: It just still is so hurtful because I wanted to do Shuffle Along. That’s the show I wanted to do. When the show closed, Lin Manuel [Miranda], who I have to give him his props, he came to see us in our final week, and he gets it. He knew that Hamilton was the reason we were closing, period. And there were several other shows that were closing, and he had a special round of auditions for the actors who were in those shows. It was not a publicized audition. It was a closed audition. I think three of us, three or four of us from Shuffle, went to do that national tour of Hamilton because they made space for us. But did I really want to do Hamilton? Absolutely not. I wanted to tell my story. I wanted to tell the story of people who look like me. It’s… you see how Shuffle Along happens all over the world, not just in the theater industry. Shuffle Along and what happened to us happens when black folks come together to create something and the powers that be decide… people who don’t understand us, don’t understand our culture, don’t speak our language get to decide, “Ehhh… Yeah no, let’s just scrap it.” Like, I don’t want to say it, but after us, our producers produced Hello Dolly. You know what I mean? Like they took their money and literally went across the street and was like “We got this.” It’s how the industry works.
Dexter Thomas: When you talk about it… and as I hear other cast members talking about it, it’s like they’re talking about somebody, like a friend who passed.
Amber Iman: Yes. It felt like a death in the family. Close. Not the second cousin twice removed. It felt like something you love that was close to you, was taken. If you talk to any of us about Shuffle five years later we also have this exact same energy. And that’s how you know how hurtful it was. There’s not a like, “Oh you know, I moved on.” We are still hot. Like I think in 20 years if you asked me about Shuffle Along I will still be this level of pissed because it just… it hurts in so many different ways. And I think half of it is because the reason to revive the show and bring it back to life and tell it in a new way, was to honor the show from 1921. To honor those names, to tell their stories, to keep their names in the space, and to sing the songs that they wrote and speak the words that they wrote. The least we could have done was preserved it in some way Let’s say we got a cast album but no film. Or a film but no cast album. To work that hard to bring this story back to life and cut it down in 99 shows, and not even preserve it? Like, it’s insulting. You know what I’m saying?
Dexter Thomas: …whew. Okay, what am I supposed to do after this conversation?
Amber Iman: Take a long walk. That’s what I’m gonna do.
NARRATOR (Dexter): This is one of those ‘laugh to keep from crying’ moments, right? But what Amber just said a moment ago. That the show wasn’t preserved. She’s right. There’s no easily accessible public place where you can find the 2016 Shuffle Along. If you live in a place that Hamilton hasn’t toured yet, or if you can’t afford tickets, you can still experience it. There’s an album of all the songs. There’s a video of the whole thing streaming online. Hamilton is now a permanent part of our culture. But 2016’s Shuffle Along – there is one place in a library where there’s an archival tape. But for everyone who isn’t a researcher who lives in New York it has basically vanished. But then again – why did it take 95 years for someone to try to bring Shuffle Along back into our memories? Who hid this from us for so long? To find out a little more about that, I figured I’d talk to someone who studies this stuff.
Catherine M. Young: My name is Catherine M. Young, and I am a theater historian. I study popular entertainments, mostly in the U.S. from the late 19th and early 20th century, and I currently teach first-year writing at Princeton.
NARRATION (Dexter):: In addition to her teaching work, Catherine has written a lot about Shuffle Along; both the original and the 2016 version. And she’s very convinced that this is an important musical for people to know about, but she’s got some insight on why a lot of people don’t know about it. She says that especially when she teaches about the 1921 version, there’s something that always comes up.
Catherine M. Young: I think that what does interest people the most is probably that black performers wore blackface and that’s very confusing for a lot of people. And just trying to walk folks through that and say like, yeah, it was a convention of the time. It was a comic convention of the time. You know, some performers did it. And it’s complicated.
NARRATION (Dexter):: That’s right. That legendary musical created by black artists, featuring all black performers, The one that Caseen Gaines and Dr. Catherine Young have written extensively about – the one Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois praised, features two black comedians who wore blackface. They spend the whole musical bumbling around and talking in an exaggerated, stereotypical dialect:
- Sam! Sam, Sam!. Where is you gwine, is you lost there? Come here!.
- That man done hit me so hard I don’t know where I is.
- I Thought you told me you was a first class prize fighter..
- Well, I is!
- Well then why don’t you stop some ‘a them blows?
- That’s what I done !
- With my mouth.
NARRATION (Dexter):: That’s from one of the few audio recordings that survives from around the time the original musical was being performed. One of the few other artifacts is a promotional photo. It shows the two characters you just heard, stealing money out of a safe. Both of the men have their faces painted, as black as the safe. Their eyes are wide, their lips are drawn on, and they’re making funny faces. I actually hadn’t planned on talking about this with Catherine. But since it came up, I decided to ask about it.
Dexter Thomas: It is, it’s a pretty wild photo. I mean, it’s, it’s actually not immediately apparent… it’s clear that this is blackface, but it’s actually not immediately apparent that they’re black.
Catherine M. Young: Yes. I agree.
Dexter Thomas: I can certainly imagine, you know, if you’ve got a student you’re telling them: Hey, listen, this is a really important musical that you should know about. And they look at this picture and they’re just, I’m good. I’ma pass.
Catherine M. Young: Exactly. Exactly. Um, yeah, I mean, do you, do you have that feeling when you look at that photo?
Dexter Thomas: Um, think if I didn’t already know the context, I’d rather not be subjected to that.
Catherine M. Young: I mean, honestly, I appreciate that stance and I, even though I’m an educator and it’s my job to try to, you know, bring students to a point of investigation and analysis, when you look back at the history of blackface, it represents so much violence. Theater historians have to work with people where they are. I mean, especially if we are teachers, like it’s very hard to teach young people about blackface in a way that isn’t traumatic. As a white woman, I mean, it’s not for me to say, but I, you know, I wouldn’t want anything to do with it.
Caseen Gaines: It’s sort of hard to think about a hundred years later, but even Frederick Douglass said in the late 1800s, he thought blackface was a deplorable practice, but he also felt that there was something to be gained anytime black performers had the ability be seen by white audiences who could then recognize that they had talent and worth and value. Miller and Lyles, by being black performers in blackface, they actually were doing that as a way to expand their reach to white audiences. They knew that it was an unfortunate concession, but a concession that ultimately was moving in the direction of progress. And so it’s complex.
Dexter Thomas: It’s really weird to think about it. I mean, what you’re saying and what it sounds like the argument here is that it’s difficult now, I think for us in 2021 to think of blackface as strategic. As a strategic move that a black person can make to get themselves in front of a white audience, long enough to show them something else. But that’s what was happening.
Caseen Gaines: That’s what was happening.
NARRATION (Dexter):: And there’s a story that Caseen tells that I think really exemplifies what the artists were trying to do. It’s from after Shuffle Along had been running for a while. It’s early in the evening, just before the show is about to start. Eubie Blake is sitting out by the audience, and he happens to overhear a couple of white folks talking. They’ve just sat down, and one of them seems really upset about something.
Caseen Gaines: So Eubie overhears this white woman say to the person she’s with, oh my God. I didn’t realize we’re at a colored show. And he makes the decision at that moment that he is going to make her his personal project. And he’s not going to speak to her. He’s going to just make sure the orchestra is tight, make sure that he has all of his ducks in a row for this performance. He’s going to play his heart out and make sure that everyone else does as well. And when the show is over, I don’t remember if it’s during intermission or when the show is over, but at some point the woman actually goes up to him and says, you know, “I don’t know if you heard me when I sat down…” And he says that he didn’t, even though he had. And she said, “You know, I just want to congratulate you on this musical. And I want you to relay my congratulations to everyone who’s a part of this company, you know, this show is amazing and I’m going to tell everyone to go see it.” And Eubie, and Noble Sissle really had the mindset if they played a thousand white in the audience, every night, and they could just have a hundred of those people think a little bit better about black people at the end of two hours, just a little bit better, that if they just played enough shows, they were doing their part for advancing race relations, every performance. Noble Sissle’s father was a Methodist preacher and really wanted Noble Sissle to become an evangelist like him. Noble Sissle said, you know, look, I never became an evangelist in the traditional sense, but I really feel like what we are doing every night is evangelical work for the black race by going and playing these performances. And just hoping that we are changing hearts and minds and sentiments, just, you know, two hours at a time.
NARRATION (Dexter):: In the early days, people, especially black people, generally respected what Shuffle Along was achieving. So the trouble isn’t just that students don’t want to learn about Shuffle Along, or that their professors are hesitant about teaching it to them. That’s not the issue. Or at least, that’s not how we got here. How we got here, is that soon after Shuffle Along’s first run, it started to fall out of favor among white people, and black people. After the original run, there was an attempt to bring it back for a revival in 1932. That didn’t work out well. Then a movie adaptation in 1942….that never materialized. By this time, Hollywood had realized that black talent could sell, especially if they packaged it differently for white audiences. So white producers were starting to pull songs from the original Shuffle Along, and use it in their own work. By the early 1940s, the hit song from Shuffle Along ‘I’m Just Wild about Harry’ had been featured in two movies, both times sung by white actresses. And then, in 1949, President Harry Truman used the song for his re-election campaign. And when he won, the campaign invited Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle to sing it at his inauguration in Washington D.C. Then at the last minute, the campaign canceled on Blake and Sissle, and instead invited one of those same white actresses to sing their song.
(brief snippet of Alice Faye’s cover of I’m Just Wild About Harry)
NARRATION (Dexter):: Caseen says that by this point, a lot of people knew the songs, but probably had no idea that it came from black writers and singers. So I guess I shouldn’t feel bad about thinking Daffy Duck made that song when I was a kid. But back then, memories were a little fresher, and there was still a chance to set the record straight. In the early 50s, there was one more attempt to finally bring Shuffle Along back to Broadway. But one of the biggest opponents to this happening weren’t white – they were black.
Caseen Gaines: In 1952, Pearl Bailey, who is a black actress – a Broadway performer – was set to star in a revival of Shuffle Along. She ultimately withdrew from that project and very publicly said she thinks that Shuffle Along is horrible because of its history of blackface, of Antebellum humor. She encouraged people to not see the 1952 production. She encouraged black people in particular to not see it. And that production ultimately ran on Broadway for four performances. Four.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Yeah, four performances and the whole thing was cancelled. And that was pretty much it. So it wasn’t just that white producers were copying Shuffle Along, which they were. Or that they were hiring black talent away from Shuffle Along, to teach white performers how to dance, and sing. Which again, that was happening too. It’s more complicated than that, and it’s something that had been happening for a long time.
Caseen Gaines: in the 1930s, 1940s, and definitely in the 1950s, there was really a movement by black folks to say Shuffle Along is antiquated. Shuffle Along was actually a really unfortunate moment in our history because of blackface. It’s a show that is best left forgotten.
Dexter Thomas: It reminds me of hearing a story about, there was somebody who I believe went to go work in the library in Tulsa. And they realized that somebody had gone into the stacks, into the old newspapers and had cut out with a razor, had physically cut out and removed any mention of the massacre, any mention of that violence. They had just actually removed it. And it’s weird that, these two things happened in such close proximity to each other, right? Just within days of each other, this, this height, right? Of the debut of Shuffle Along, and then the violence, the massacre in Tulsa. And that both have been in some way buried. Perhaps for different reasons by different populations, but there’s sort of a mutually, almost mutually agreed upon, “We’re not going to talk about this anymore.”
Caseen Gaines: Yeah. And it makes you wonder, where are those other stories, you know? We are living in a moment where there is such an appropriate emphasis on wiping the dust off these coffins and saying “Wait, no, this was here.” You know, Tulsa did happen. There are people who live in Tulsa, who live in Tulsa, who live in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, who do not know what transpired a hundred years ago. Like they, they know about it today…
Dexter Thomas: Right.
Caseen Gaines: But did they know 15 years ago? Did they know about it 10 years ago? Because the community said, “Look, we’re not going to talk about this. We’re going to, we’re going to move on.” And I think, you know, it feels like a tangent, but I don’t think it is. There’s something very interesting to me about something we do in this country in particular. I think this is a distinctly American thing, where there are some things that we say we should never forget. And yet when you remind people of other things, the statement is, “Ooh, that was the past. we should never, we should never talk about that. That was a long time ago.”
Dexter Thomas: Right.
Caseen Gaines: You know, Eubie Blake’s parents were both enslaved people. Eubie Blake lived until the 1980s. That is a person who lived in the 1980s, had parents who were enslaved. So when people say that was such a long time ago…was it, I mean, was it really? And if we can remember all these other things about American history, why can’t we remember something like Shuffle Along?
NARRATION (Dexter):: But it’s not like we haven’t had the opportunity to remember. I mean, we had one in 2016. But what happens then is another question entirely – of, are we going to remember the right thing? Catherine says she’s not so sure. There’s a scene in the 2016 musical where Billy Porter, who plays Aubrey Lyles, is putting on blackface, and talking directly to the audience about the same inner conflict that Caseen was just talking about. And that made Catherine wonder about what it was exactly that we expect people to remember.
Dexter Thomas: Tell me about the experience of seeing it the first time. What was it like? What was the crowd like? What was, what was the energy like? What did it feel like?
Catherine M. Young: I was in very good seats. I was in the orchestra. I think I must have gotten like a rush ticket, or like a TDF ticket or something. And I am always curious. I do always try to hold myself to account as like a white person of like, what am I getting out of this performance? And I always try to do like surreptitious audience scholarship, you know? And so there was sort of this white older, white couple next to me. And I was also just curious, because there’s a scene about putting on blackface and how difficult it is, so I was sort of like, oh, like what brought you to this show? You know? And they were like, “We love tap!” And that’s…
Dexter Thomas: [laughing] “We love tap.” They love tap dancing, okay.
Catherine M. Young: Exactly. And so that’s where I’m like, what’s the pleasure here? And is it too easy to let those moments, those critical moments, are those moments too easy for white audience members to ignore? Because the tap dancing is so amazing? Like, what do audiences get out of this show?
NARRATION (Dexter):: Despite those kinda awkward interactions, Catherine went to see the Shuffle Along of 2016 as often as she could. Partially because she loved the show, and partially because she’s a researcher, and it’s kinda her job to study these things and think through these questions. But she says that it didn’t really hit home until one particular performance.
Catherine M. Young: I remember bringing my daughter, who was very little. I brought her to a matinee, and she looked down and then she looked up and it was the scene when Billy Porter had put on blackface, and she gasped. And I was like, oh my God, like, what have I done?
Dexter Thomas: How old was she?
Catherine M. Young: She was five. She was like, “He put on so much makeup!” or something like that. And I was like, oh my God, like, I’m one of those horrible people. I brought my child to a blackface performance. Like, what have I done? And it’s like, George Wolfe has done all this framing work to frame it, but she’s five. She’s not picking up on all the dialogue and the explication and the… you know, so that was a really intense moment for me as a theater historian, as a parent. I mean, my daughter does not remember it. Like, I have personally never forgotten that. And it makes me think about questions of reception, right? And, the politics of, of what audiences get out of a show like that. And the limits of reframing, maybe. I don’t know, actually … um, I actually don’t know what I think of it all.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Now, Catherine’s daughter had the benefit of her professor mom being there, to explain the history of blackface, as best as she can, and why it would be so painful. Now, that couple she was sitting next to at that first performance, maybe they already knew, or maybe they learned something, like the woman Eubie Blake was talking about, but …maybe not. Which leaves us right back where we’ve been circling around for decades. We can all agree that Shuffle Along was groundbreaking, and that in its time, it was important. But that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to watch it. Or even that we can agree on who should watch it. You’ve probably got someone in your Facebook friends list who you might not want to watch it, because you’re not sure if they would ‘get’ it, whatever that means. Unfortunately, those decisions have been made for us, because neither the 1921 version or the 2016 version can be watched. But that made me curious about what things might be like now had Shuffle Along never been buried. I decided to ask all three guests, starting with Caseen.
Dexter Thomas: What if everybody knew about Shuffle Along? Just imagine that for a moment. What if everybody knew about Shuffle Along? What if, what have you, what if you didn’t have to give somebody a two minute elevator speech, how might things be different?
Caseen Gaines: I’ll tell you that’s maybe the most important question I’ve ever gotten about Shuffle Along, I’ll be honest with you.
Dexter Thomas: Really?
Caseen Gaines: We get to have deep discussions about all sorts of things in “mainstream culture.” You know, there are college courses that teach about Sondheim and the musical. You can have deep discussions, you know, close reads of those shows.
Dexter Thomas: Right.
Caseen Gaines: We’re going to look at… Romeo’s exchange in Act two, Scene two, the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. And we’re going to do a close read and a re-interpretation. And… black folks are often denied the dignity of nuance. Of being able to have a really specific conversation and a nuanced view of something. And I think that if everyone knew about Shuffle Along, we could have that conversation about what this show and what it means, because as we’ve noted over the course of this conversation, so much of what was transpiring a century ago still transpiring today. Still.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah.
Caseen Gaines: And so we could maybe live in that space and maybe get to a point where some of those conversations are truly in the rear view because we’ve had them, we’ve discussed them. We’ve reached some consensus on them. And I think if Shuffle Along were universally known, it would just bring us that much closer to that.
Catherine M. Young: I think that if everyone knew about Shuffle Along, if people looked back and saw the revues from the 20s, like George White’s Scandals and Lou Leslie’s Blackbirds and all that, that they would understand that they were actually copying a show that was created by black creatives and understanding that there was sort of like an extractive quality, not just of the talent, but also of the, just like the mode, right? The musical mode and the dancing mode of the performances. So I think that, there will be that understanding that Shuffle Along sort of ushered it in and showed the way. And I think maybe it would seem less radical to be calling for black creative teams, to be really deeply questioning when creative teams at Broadway are all white and the content is about black life. That white producers and creatives wouldn’t need such a wake-up call around those kinds of the politics of representation. And the idea of “nothing about us without us.” And obviously we’re speculating, so I guess I’m allowed to be as Pollyanna-ish as I want, but that’s one idea that I can think of.
NARRATION (Dexter):: I posed a similar question to Amber Iman, but this time, I asked her about the show that she performed in.
Dexter Thomas: Unfortunately, I never got to see Shuffle, the one that you were in.
Amber Iman: Yeah. And you won’t be able to see it. Sheesh.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. Well, let me ask you this: what if everybody knew about Shuffle Along? How do you think things might be different?
Amber Iman: People always say, you know, “How can you move forward without knowing where you came from?” You move differently when you know the history. If people got to understand and know who Sissle and Blake were, how these people sacrificed and were willing to give up their lives for this, I think they would move differently, they would invest their money differently. It makes you ask more questions. Also, for young chocolate actresses to be able to come and see themselves, that does something for you differently. I will never forget, my first Broadway show was the original Color Purple back in, I think that’s 2007. I was sitting on the floor, and my mind was blown. When you see people who look like you, that are your same height, that are your same body type, to see all the different shades and tones and colors that were on stage, and Shuffle Along… like, that does things for people when they come to see this. So I can just imagine the effect that Shuffle would have had on generations of young brown kids. I’m sure it would’ve had a monumental effect that I can’t even put into words.
NARRATION (Dexter):: So let’s come back to reality for a minute. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean that the reality is that even though the show is gone, it has had an effect, beyond what anyone thought it would. Amber never really had time to mourn the show. Just a couple weeks after the announcement that Shuffle Along was closing, Amber heard about two, more pressing, tragedies. Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, two black men, were killed by police just a day apart from each other. The videos of both went viral. Amber felt like she had to do something. So, despite never having organized an event, she got together with some castmates and friends and put on an event called Broadway for Black Lives Matter. That then morphed into an organization called Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which has expanded its work beyond the stage, and is still running today. Also, Caseen Gaines happened to be in the audience the day before Amber’s show ended, and he was so moved that he decided to dedicate the next five years of his life to writing an entire book about it, which is why we now know more about the 1921 play, and the people who wrote it, than ever before. And Catherine has continued to write and teach on the subject, and she also put together a symposium that brought together cast members from 2016, and performers and scholars from all over the place. Which, in turn, helped inspire the episode you’re listening to today. So I guess what I’m saying is, yes, a lot of Shuffle Along is lost. But if you know how to listen, and you where to look, you can still see the influence. Maybe not everybody knows. But now you do.
Thanks so much for listening to this, the first episode of If Everybody Knew. I hope you dug it. I have to give the disclaimer and the shoutouts here – this episode could not have happened without the participation of Amber Iman, Caseen Gaines, and Dr. Catherine M. Young. That being said, the framing and editorializing, and everything else in this episode is my own. So if you’re curious to know more, you should definitely go to the source, and please check out the show notes at humanities.princeton.edu/podcast. That’ll have links on how you can find Amber Iman’s work, and of course Caseen’s Gaines’ book. And also Catherine’s articles are linked up there, and she’s teaching a course on documentary theater next semester. And the symposium I mentioned a moment ago, is called Reactivating Memory, and you can watch the whole thing online. So, again, you know I’m only scratching the surface here but if you want to know more, visit humanities.princeton.edu/podcast.
And hey, not everybody knows about Shuffle Along, but if you know somebody who should, maybe send them an email or text and send them a link to the show. And if you’re listening to this in iTunes, leaving a rating and a comment helps other people find the show too. But in the meantime, I hope you dug this one, and I hope you join me for the next episode, too.
Speaking of which, next episode I’m going to be talking with Gregg Mitman, author of “Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia” and that one drops next month.
If Everybody Knew is produced, with music composed by and hosted by me, Dexter Thomas. Until next time.
Esther “Starry” Schor: If Everybody Knew is brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Our mission is to nurture the humanities local and globally, engage diverse perspectives past and present, and enrich public dialogue with humanistic approaches. For information about our programs and events, please visit our website at humanities.princeton.edu.