According to the Harlem chronicler James Weldon Johnson, the 1921 musical revue Shuffle Along marked a breakthrough for the African-American musical performer and made musical theatre history. Written by the famous comic duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, with music and lyrics by the vaudeville team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Shuffle Along struck a major blow against racial stereotyping.
This revue legitimized the African-American musical, proving to producers and managers that audiences would pay to see African-American talent on Broadway. President Harry Truman even picked a Shuffle Along song for his campaign anthem, "I'm Just Wild about Harry."
A surprise hit, Shuffle Along ran for 504 performances at the Cort Theatre, signaling a new era of African-American participation in American theatre. The musical brought black actors back to Broadway after a 10-year absence during a time when the prominent black actors and producers of the day had retired and/or passed away. Shuffle Along also brought black audiences to the orchestra rather than being relegated to the balcony, and featured the first sophisticated, serious, African-American love story, introducing the song "Love Will Find a Way."
Moreover, Shuffle Along laid the foundation for public acceptance of African-American performers in other than "burlesques" roles. Florence Mills, the female star, gained international fame due to the success of the show. Shuffle Along also had an innovative female chorus, which included up-and-coming performer Josephine Baker. They combined jazz dance and jazz music, creating an improvisational style of dancing that encouraged individual expression. Other Broadway producers, including those of the Ziegfeld Follies, were so impressed that they hired several of the Shuffle Along girls to give pointers to their choruses.
Shuffle Along was so original and successful that it inspired the creation of countless other African-American musicals to showcase African-American dancing. In 1923, Miller and Lyle starred in Runnin' Wild, which introduced the Charleston to the stage and turned it into a national and international fad. In Sissle and Blake's 1924 production of The Chocolate Dandies, which made a star of Josephine Baker, the chorus line performed tap and danced closely together with a swinging rhythm.
The impact of Shuffle Along rippled through Broadway, with nine African-American musicals opening between 1921 and 1924. For the next few years, black theatre would pioneer several "firsts." The Blackbirds of 1928 featured Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the first black dance star, on Broadway. In 1929, Harlem, a drama by Wallace Thurman and William Rapp, introduced the Slow Drag, the first African-American social dance to reach Broadway. After the introduction of the Charleston, tap, Slow Drag, and jazz dancing, the majority of African-American musicals followed the same variety show format: featuring specialty acts—such as comedians, singers, dancers, and musicians—and a chorus of attractive girls.
Even the onset of the Great Depression did not derail the popularity of this lively genre; six African-American musicals debuted during the 1930-31 season, and five shows appeared the following season. After the 1932 season, however, productions of African-American musicals declined. Although Blake, Sissle, Miller, and Lyles reunited for Shuffle Along of 1933, the production was not met with critical success. George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) is remembered as the most successful "black" musical of the 1930s, but, in fact, only the on-stage talent was African American. And while everyone agreed that the performers were excellent, some African Americans complained that the musical did not reflect black life realistically.
As scholar James Haskins noted, Shuffle Along "started a whole new era for blacks on Broadway, as well as a whole new era for blacks in all creative fields." Loften Mitchell, author of Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre, credits Shuffle Along (1921) with launching the Harlem Renaissance. Written, staged, and performed entirely by African Americans, Shuffle Along was the first show to make African-American dance an integral part of American musical theatre.
The African-American musicals of this era, especially Shuffle Along, are of great importance to the history of American musical theatre. In fact, the influence of African-American culture, particularly in its utilization of jazz music and dance, helped the American musical theatre evolve into a truly unique art form. According to playwright and scholar James V. Hatch, without the contributions of black artists, the "American musical might still be waltzing with an umpah-pah-pah to the descendants of Merry Widow and Naughty Marietta."
The many talented African-American artists during the Harlem Renaissance helped to establish a form that was not imported from Europe or the English stage, but was indigenous to the United States.
- Graziano, John. "Sentimental Songs, Rags, and Transformations: The Emergence of the Black Musical, 1895-1910." In Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America. Edited by Glenn Loney. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
- Haskins, James. Black Theater in America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1982.
- Hatch, James V. "A Guide to 200 Years of Drama." The Drama Review 16 (December 1972).
- Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940. Reprint. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1968.
- Mitchell, Loften. Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967.
- Scott, Freda L. "Black Drama and the Harlem Renaissance." Theatre Journal 37 (December 1985).
- Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
- Tanner, Jo A. Dusky Maidens: The Odyssey of the Early Black Dramatic Actress. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.
About the Author
Jo Tanner, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Drama, Theatre & Dance department at Queens College/CUNY, where she heads the Black Theatre Program. She is Founder/Executive Director of Dusky Divas Production, New York's only theater devoted to commemorating pioneer African-American female performers. Her book, Dusky Maidens: The Odyssey of the Early Black Dramatic Actress (1992), is the first comprehensive study specifically on the evolution of early African-American actresses.