White Folks Watching
I arrived in midtown Manhattan early, anxious not to sacrifice my expensive Broadway seat, an unusual luxury for me, to the whims of the MTA on a weekend, and as it was a warm night, I took a walk around the block to buy a bottle of water before I got in line.
So I ran smack into the anxious, excited, gorgeous crush of people gathered in line for the current Broadway show about American history that centers subversively on the experience of people of color and appropriates modern musicality to ahistorical but effective ends. I sheered away nervously, as I generally do when confronted with something overwhelmingly popular. I found a bodega that would sell me a bottle of water, and joined the much more sedate line for the other current Broadway show about American history that centers subversively on the experience of people of color and appropriates modern musicality to ahistorical but effective ends.
Those of us who take what you might call a rooting interest in Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed, are rather inclined to resent Hamilton for the way it sucks up all the oxygen out of the cultural conversation about race on Broadway, as though Lin-Manuel Miranda and company were the first to think of putting non-white people on a stylish New York stage and presenting an exciting, youthful story using modern music, or anyway the nearest approximation of modern music that theater audiences can handle. That original 1921 musical sensation had, after all, more or less invented the concept, only with jazz rather than hip-hop, and with specifically Southern Black performers rather than a postmodern mélange of pan-ethnic immigrant identities. But pop-cultural memory is short, especially where race is concerned; every generation of white Americans seems to believe that they are the first to have discovered that Black people are people, and so mistake the currents of fashion for an impenetrable barrier of history, as though hearing the old as new were as impossible as time travel itself.
In the line for Shuffle Along, the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly older crowd talked entirely about other Broadway shows; like the general-interest boosters mocked in comics criticism as Team Comics, Broadway fans are catholic in taste and willing to see anything as long as it’s theatrical, no matter what it’s about or whether they would care if it were in presented in a different medium. The couple from Chicago I talked to were interested in Shuffle Along not because they knew or cared anything about the story or the history of the show, but because Savion Glover and Audra McDonald were involved, and it was probably going to win a Tony for choreography, so it was incumbent upon people who considered themselves cosmopolitan theatergoers to see it, just as they had seen Fun Home without caring about Alison Bechdel in particular or LBGT identities in general, except as a device for the exercise of their sentimental faculties.
Indeed, the reviewers’ knock against Shuffle Along, or the Making of &c. is that it doesn’t give the audience enough opportunity for the exercise of its sentimental faculties; it’s didactic, cramming as much unfamiliar history as possible into its generous running time, or it’s shopworn, grinding out a hokey backstager about a bunch of scrappy kids putting on a show against the odds, or it’s just plain uneven, switching between cutesy bits of business and unblinking examinations of the powerful psychological toll of pervasive racism with little preparation. The audience is called out several times in the script as being a bunch of clueless, wealthy white folks — at which they guffaw agreeably — but aside from emotional highlights like Billy Porter’s astonishing solo “Low Down Blues,” in which he howls like a junkie James Brown, and Audra McDonald’s single diva moment, the late-show rendition of “Memories of You,” they are rarely rapt, merely amused or — during the rocketing, pulverizing dance numbers, in which Savion Glover’s eccentric postmodern tap dismisses historical recreation and launches into industrialized futurism, gleefully entertained.
But then audiences in 1921 didn’t quite seem to understand what they were seeing either. Contemporary raves underscored the wholesomeness of the show (overlooking the fact that the two comedic leads, and writers of the book, performed in blackface), as though it were worthy of comment that Black people could be entertaining without being obscene. The historic firsts of the original Shuffle Along — that it was the first Broadway musical written, performed and produced entirely by Black people, that it was the first musical to feature a dancing chorus line (almost unimaginably, before 1921 Broadway chorines had merely posed decoratively), that it was the first show with a jazz score, that it broke the barriers between Uptown and Downtown, inventing the practice of slumming, that it incubated a generation of Black theatrical talent (Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Fredi Washington, and William Grant Still all got their start in its company) — were only visible in hindsight, or with greater perceptiveness than the average white audience member, whose highest encomium was “a good nigger show,” was able to attain.
But Harlem Renaissance writers like James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, in whose writings I first encountered the show, were another matter. They knew perfectly well how revolutionary Shuffle Along was; none knew better how deep the hunger in Black America under Jim Crow was to see itself represented on the theatrical stage, freed from the cruel or condescending uses of white minstrelsy, white abolitionism, in fact any white gaze at all.
Theater, in the era of Shuffle Along, was not the expensive but relatively minor form of entertainment it is today. It was rather the oxygen of shared culture, the way by which America, in all its consequence and contradiction, made itself known to itself. In the years when movies were still silent, when popular song meant sheet music rather than records, and when television, much less gaming or the internet, were dreams undreamt, the beating heart of mass culture, whether high opera or low vaudeville, was the stage.
Which is why Shuffle Along was a pipe bomb in its day, transforming American culture in a way that not even the Hamilton juggernaut can today, not if it runs for another two decades and spawns movies and prestige cable dramas and video games. The way that culture functions is different now; fandom demands an intensity, but also an interiority, that leaves nothing in the wider world unchanged. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which entered American life as a novel, but remained there for generations as a play, was given credit by Abraham Lincoln for lighting the match that sparked the Civil War, a work like Angels in America (a far superior work of didactic art by any measure) can claim only to have moved enough of the “right” people to slightly ameliorate the AIDS crisis; while Hamilton, at best, inspires Change.org petitions for racebent casting in Hollywood productions. Hip-hop had already transformed the world long before Hamilton got to it; making hip-hop safe for theater kids — and, less ungraciously, making American history safe for the multicultural youth of the American present — isn’t nothing, but in keeping with our hypercapitalized, neoliberal economic era, it’s almost comically low-stakes.
Shuffle Along brought Broadway into conversation with jazz, and the fallout from that meeting was so spectacular that the men who engineered it were very nearly lost from sight in the conflagration. Because of course white Broadway, better-funded and eager to hoover up any idea that would engage their vast and fickle audience, took everything they could use from Shuffle Along — the hoofing chorus, the brisk, jazzy score, the emphasis on athletic dance (particularly tap), the juxtaposition of knockabout farce and sincere love story — and invented the musical comedy, which echoes in its many multiplicities down to the present moment. Even as Black Broadway exploded in the wake of Shuffle Along, with several dozen all-Black shows (some of which the Shuffle originators had a hand in, others purely imitative, or spiritedly competitive) erupting throughout the 1920s and lending some truth to Fitzgerald’s formulation of the era as the “Jazz Age,” later shows would be better remembered for producing bigger stars. Permanent fixtures in American culture like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters eclipsed their elders in the late ’20s just as the technological revolution of talking pictures and electrical recordings took hold, consigning all that had come before to the shadowy oblivion of hearsay and surface noise.
Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed is a valiant attempt to rescue not just the dry name-and-date recitation of history, but the pipe bomb too, from that oblivion. The four men behind the making of the original musical — composer Eubie Blake, lyricist Noble Sissle, and writing-and-comedy team Flournoy (F. E.) Miller and Aubrey Lyles — are brought to vivid, sympathetic life by a uniformly excellent cast. Although genial, gladhanding Miller and cocky, forthright Lyles, played by famous Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter respectively, have received the lion’s share of praise among the male members of the cast, I was most struck by Joshua Henry’s pompous, arrogant, easily wounded Noble Sissle, the character most deeply invested in respectability politics (especially in contrast to his partner Blake’s cannily elastic sense of self) and the most outraged by lack of recognition in later life. Having spent a not insubstantial amount of time listening to Sissle’s records and reading his interviews, I thought it was a remarkable achievement of recreation, exactly the mixture of smiling showman and thin-skinned patrician that I “knew” from my research.
Brandon Victor Dixon as Blake was less outstanding to me only because, as a participant in the only love story in the show, he was burdened with the necessity of being cute, and responding to a far more vibrant personality, rather than having the luxury to sculpt his own persona to a needle’s point. Eubie Blake, elastic with the truth, with history, and with his own emotional honesty, is a slippery figure, married to one woman while carrying on a long affair with his leading lady, but only truly emotionally accessible in his music. Dixon captures his entirely sincere charm, but as an actor he is too emotionally open to really dig into Blake’s musician’s selfishness, the protective barricade that artists erect between the world and their only true passion, their own creations.
As his requited-but-not-nearly-enough lover, Audra McDonald’s performance of forgotten diva Lottie Gee is the emotional centerpiece of the show, to such a degree that I found myself slightly exhausted by how much attention she (not undeservedly) received both from the script and from the audience. If you land a Broadway legend in your show, of course you milk it, but I’m far more curious to see the show again when McDonald takes maternity leave to see how the character, and the show, hold up in the vacuum left by her absence.
Lottie Gee, a Black vaudeville lifer who was almost middle-aged by the time she finally had a hit in Shuffle Along, never recorded and was never filmed, so McDonald’s performance can only be based on photography and anecdote; that she achieves a fragile, self-protective imperiousness, melting into unselfconscious girlishness when caught off guard by her infatuation with Blake, and curdling into grande-dame self-pity when she finally realizes he will never change, is a testament to both the perceptive wit of George C. Wolfe’s script and McDonald’s own genius at fleshing out a skeleton assembled of a few newspaper squibs and journal entries. Still, there was nothing unexpected here: the aging, unrecognized diva role of theatrical tradition is hardly modified by hers being the inspiration to change “I’m Just Wild about Harry” from a Viennese waltz to a syncopated foxtrot.
Far more exciting to my eyes was the soubrette role, played twice over by Adrienne Warren, in the first act as wild-child vaudevillian Gertrude Saunders and in the second act as demure, unearthly soprano Florence Mills.
Which slightly disappointed me, I may as well pause to note, because Florence Mills has been the chief obsession of my adult life. As Gertrude, Warren gets to run around in full sass mode, bubbling with the irrepressible personality that would lead, later in life, to being remembered primarily because Bessie Smith thrashed her in public for stepping out with her man (1). But as Florence, Warren is all virginal big-eyed timidity, run roughshod over by McDonald’s Lottie Gee, and even when she does finally get a chorus to herself has no personality but Youthful Star, here to supplant the aging diva. In fact, Gertrude’s hilarious, wildly energetic showcase numbers could have been (and were, in fact) equally as well performed by Florence, who was reportedly a brilliant dancer and comedian as well as an intoxicating singer — she too never recorded or filmed — but none of that appears in the show.
Which, to be fair, is about Shuffle Along, a show in which Florence Mills only appeared for a few months in 1921 and 1922; a show which catapulted her to fame, but which she left behind in order to create a series of shows built around her performing style (honed over a decade in vaudeville and nightclubs, not sprung from the brow of Jove, as portrayed here) and to give as many Black entertainers as she could work, exposure, and a paycheck. Her death in 1927 of, essentially, overwork, because she pushed herself as hard and bitterly as though she could pull up her entire race by her own bootstraps, is related, quite effectively, in Wolfe’s script.
I choked back tears in the theater, and covered my mouth to stifle a sob, when Florence’s death was announced. It was fifty years before I was born, and somehow I’m still not over it. But it was only the most prominent of my emotional reactions to the show, which were continuous and high-strung.
It has sometimes felt, over the last twenty years of my life, that there are only about two hundred or so of us in the world who care deeply about early Black American musical theater. My friends listen politely to my claims that Florence Mills was the Beyoncé of her day — the most famous Black entertainer in America, engaged in a high-profile but intensely private marriage to another entertainer, a relationship which was equally a business partnership (2); an unapologetically and politically active, not to say militant, Black woman who played incessantly with racial identity and gender roles in her performance; an outspoken advocate of racial equality and a generous philanthropist who remained devoted to her mother and gave so much of herself in performance that she was retiring to the point of painful shyness offstage — but Josephine Baker (and possibly Bessie Smith) remain, for the vast majority of generalists, the only permissible iconography of Black womanhood in the Roaring Twenties.
And the further back you go, the less recognizable the landscape is to anyone outside of exhaustive specialists like myself. Shuffle Along was indeed a pipe bomb, but it took place within a context, and a history, that is even more forgotten than the show itself, which at least gets namechecked every time a high school student has to do a book report on the Harlem Renaissance, thanks to Langston Hughes’ often-repeated statement that it was the curtain’s rise on that artistic movement.
Wolfe’s script for the new Shuffle Along does well by that history — he namechecks the shadowy, half-mythical figure Master Juba, the dancing slave who early blackface minstrels of the 1840s sought to imitate, the legendary fin-de-siècle comic duo Bert Williams and George Walker (Walker’s wife, the beautiful and dynamic Aida Overton Walker, who was Florence Mills’ idol in youth, even gets worked into a laugh line), and the great proto-jazz band-leader James Reese Europe, whose WWI service and senseless murder is narrated by Noble Sissle, who had sung in Europe’s band, with chilling gravitas — but though I rejoiced in each name, each worked-up anecdote, I could feel the audience around me shift uncomfortably at the barrage of unfamiliar references. Mass audiences in the United States will never thank a writer for exposing their ignorance of a subject, and while in interviews Wolfe is explicit about his intention of being educational as well as entertaining, the Broadway audience there to see a spectacle, to bask in the presence of stars, to exercise their sentimental faculties, seemed merely to tolerate the many-prismed history lesson, with its many dotted i’s and crossed t’s, which made my historian’s soul rejoice.
The stirring centerpiece of the first act, however, a rendition of neglected African-American composer Will Marion Cook’s magisterial “Swing Along,” which dates to the 1903 Williams and Walker show In Dahomey, was not credited in the book (or even in the program), only sung — first by Stokes Mitchell’s Miller, and then by the company — as a pick-me-up when the penniless, ragtag band of hoofers is stranded between preview engagements in the Pennsylvanian wilds.
“Swing Along” deserves to be much better remembered in the canon of American song than it is. Cook, a conservatory-trained composer who had studied with Dvořak, seethed all his life at the injustice of the institutional and interpersonal racism that forced him to eke out a living in low-rent musical theater rather than as the classical composer, conductor, and orchestra leader his talent and ambition insisted he was. Booked to write music for two comedians — one of whom, the legendary and painfully sad clown Bert Williams, wore blackface — he created a song which could be understood by racist white audiences as a simple, naïve anthem for happy-go-lucky cakewalking Coons (3), but which was immediately and long after understood by Black listeners as a call to racial pride, a pride rather more poignant than otherwise for being associated with the decidedly disreputable cakewalk, a dance that came from the minstrel stage and further back than that, from slavery, a promenade that was also a joke, a strut that mocked white pretension and when adopted by whites mocked Black vulgarity, and back and forth again. Williams and Walker were famous for their cakewalking; by the time they performed for the King and Queen of England, so was all of fashionable society.
In the show, McDonald’s Gee silently instructs a young chorine or two in the high steps of the cakewalk as the song swells. As leader, Brian Stokes Mitchell takes the song at an almost hymnal pace, giving a gospelly drag and quaver to the most subversive lines of Cook’s original lyric:
Come along Mandy, come along Sue
White folks watching and seeing what you do
White folks jealous when you’re walking two by two
It is not only an epitaph for the ragtiming and cakewalking era of Will Marion Cook, but also a portent of what the musical sensation of 1921 will accomplish — and beyond, to the whole twentieth-century history of white folks watching Black folks and plundering at will from the innovative, joyous, irrepressible, and freedom-seeking culture created by the Mandies and Sues of the Black American diaspora. American culture is Black American culture, from its rhythms to its dress to its swagger, as Cook recognized, and as Shuffle Along argues, though its explicit arguments are too few and too small to hit with real force. Yes, George Gershwin probably lifted the chords for “I Got Rhythm” from William Grant Still’s half-remembered clarinet riffs, but that’s remarkably petty theft compared to the grand larceny, if not freebooting piracy, white folks have performed for the last century on the blues, jazz, and rock and roll.
A larceny, or a piracy, in which this essay could be said to participate. I am white, and the history of Shuffle Along is not my history — in interviews, again and again, Audra McDonald and Adrienne Warren reiterate how shocked they were to discover that this history, their history as African- American theatrical performers, was unknown to them — and no matter how much research I do or how much rhetoric I marshal I am never going to be a participant in the struggle of Black Americans against racism, violence, poverty, and plunder that has lasted for nearly 400 years and shows no sign of ending yet. What I think or say about Shuffle Along — either the sensation of 1921 or the rather more muted sensation of 2016 — matters not at all, compared to what Black people think of it. I hope they do; but I also understand that there are many ways to relate to history, and for many people the healthiest and most self-protective relationship they can have to a painful or ugly history is to ignore it, to let it slip into oblivion, to focus instead on the future.
Nevertheless I am unspeakably thrilled, after sixteen solid years of wishing I could have seen or heard Florence Mills just once, so deeply was I affected by the rhapsodic contemporary descriptions of her stage presence, her movement, and her voice, that I have at last seen her represented on stage, and that her name and fame are growing in stature among those who think about the period, after nearly a century of forgetfulness. I am thrilled, too, that Shuffle Along is being remembered by at least some people as the groundbreaking, deeply exciting, and vividly alive show it was. It will never, probably, be recreated just as it was in 1921, and nothing very much is lost thereby — the original book by Miller and Lyles largely consisted of cringeworthy Coon stereotypes and the sort of broad slapstick that requires a sort of physical clowning ability that is deeply out of fashion today. Though as Wolfe’s script patiently explains, it was slyly subversive too, in that although the corrupt and dishonest characters played by Miller and Lyles were stock Coon figures, the plot still hinged around a Black community in the Deep South exercising its franchise, first electing them in and then throwing them out. In an era when Black communities across the country were subjugated by literacy requirements and ballot fees, not to mention the active terrorism of cross burnings, lynchings, mass violence, and all-out bombing, Shuffle Along could have been read as pure, naïve, white-conscience-soothing fantasy; but Wolfe argues that it was instead utopian, a vision of whole community organized by love and entirely self-regulating, aimed not at whites but at Blacks. Like any human utopia, it cannot be sustained; the second act is a lengthy meditation on the ways that the original four-man (and one-woman) team fell out, drew apart, and never recaptured the glory of that one shining production.
The centerpiece of that fallout is the original song “They Won’t Remember You,” where Brooks Ashmanskas, who has played every white person in the piece, from agents and financiers to gossipy journalists and ticket agents, sashays about as white playboy, critic and Harlem Renaissance supporter Carl Van Vechten, sneering that the Shuffle Along creators and stars will go unremembered by history (4). He is both entirely right (only Blake would see any recognition before his death, largely because he survived into his nineties, and so was one of the last of the early jazz generation to die), and ironically wrong, as the very act of recovery and reclamation in which he is singing has been constructed as a majestic bulwark against the forgetting of history, against the dismissal of forebears who were complicated and uncomfortable and perhaps embarrassing, against the unthinking brutality of the present tense, where a shallow depth of focus on the ongoing struggles for full freedom can bokeh the past into an undifferentiated mass of sorrow and pain not worth the effort it takes to understand.
Against which, Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed is a beautiful if inevitably temporary edifice. It too will not last, but in our more obsessively-documented age, it can at least serve as a signpost to future generations of a history that, I can hope, will go unrecorded and unremembered no longer.
These men and women were once here; they once astonished the world with their achievement; their memory deserves to be honored.
This essay was originally published in Exist Yesterday #1, June 2016.
1. Contra the show’s script, she was unrelated, as far as records seem to indicate, to the Gertrude Saunders who claimed to have been the Black “Baby Esther” a.k.a. Esther Jones who engaged in baby-voiced boop-a-doop singing prior to the white Helen Kane, who inspired the cartoon Betty Boop.
2. When Florence joined Shuffle Along, so did her husband, Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, whose rubber-legged dancing style was influential in Harlem’s nascent ball culture.
3. I am using Coon in the perhaps inadvisable sense that several historians of the era do, to refer to the wholly fictitious but pervasive cultural iconography of smiling, lazy, easily-spooked plantation nostalgists of large appetite and childish intellect, an iconography created by white racists and peddled by means of popular song, sentimental fiction, and print cartoons, a fiction bearing no relation to the lives or selves of real Black people, though sometimes employed by them for reasons of self-preservation or profit or both. I recognize, however, that it is not my word to reclaim, and apologize for any damage done.
4. It’s worth noting that though the real Van Vechten certainly complained that Shuffle Along was hokey and inauthentic in comparison to his favored Black entertainers like Bessie Smith, he had no history of being actively and intentionally mean-spirited to Black artists and entertainers; but I recognize that Wolfe is writing symbolically, not historically.