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
||Eubie Blake with Shuffle
Along chorus girls.
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
| Florence Mills in
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 "Bojanles" 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.
||Eubie Blake and Noble
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
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
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
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
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.
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