- Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and all that Followed dir. by George C. Wolfe
As flight attendant Miss Pat from George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum warns passengers after a trans-Atlantic flight on Celebrity Slaveship, “Any baggage you don’t claim, we trash.” For Wolfe, history that is not claimed, either by ignoring or denying it, is as ephemeral as live theatre and threatens to disappear. He resists this cultural amnesia in his stage work, so it should come as no surprise that he brought the historical archive to musical comedy life in Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. This production gave flesh to the past by dramatizing the original production’s working conditions and troubled beginnings on tour in 1921, and its popularity that spurred the craze for all-black musicals following its arrival on Broadway. But with high stakes in terms of social, racial, and cultural issues, Shuffle Along is more than just another backstage musical; it also resists the historical neglect of early twentieth-century black performers and black musicals on Broadway more generally.
The immaterial past was immediately materialized upon entering the theatre with scenic designer Santo Loquasto’s red grand drape, a relic from a bygone era of Broadway, and the sound of live tap-dancing feet emanating from behind it. Both the drape and the percussive tapping echoed the not-too-distant past when early twentieth-century black performers were carving out a place for themselves in society and show business. Wolfe’s production made the historical context of the period palpable. For instance, much has been written about Florence Mills’s unique birdlike voice, which unfortunately was never recorded; hearing Adrienne Warren perform her approximation of it was startling. The terrible working conditions are also well-documented, but it was surprisingly affective to see them staged. For example, the initial budget for Shuffle Along was so low that the performers had to wear damaged costumes leftover from other shows. Actually seeing the mismatched, moth-eaten capes and dresses (designed by Ann Roth) on the fabulous tap-dancing chorines was quite unsettling, as they starkly contrasted the visible excitement of the characters who knew that their show could be something great if given the chance.
It is widely known that touring performers often got trapped out of town when the box-office receipts could not cover train fare to the next stop on their itinerary. Savion Glover’s stunning choreography fleshed out this detail with the “Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle” in which the supremely talented ensemble tap danced to dramatize these challenges on tour. The dancers, each dressed for travel in stylish hats and coats, tapped without musical accompaniment in a cramped snaking line to evoke the crowded movement from city to city. The dancers’ occasional bursts of stomping, breaking into separate lines and crossing through them, all while tightly clutching small suitcases that held their possessions, steadily built the momentum and urgency of travel. The archive came to life and the dancers seemed to be hoofing for their lives, illustrating how the harsh realities faced by black performers on the road in Jim Crow America diminished the idealism of F. E. (Flournoy) Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, and all the others.
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Fading idealism runs throughout Wolfe’s revised book, which entirely departs from Miller and Lyles’s original in order to demonstrate how Shuffle Along’s artists continued the work of black performers on Broadway earlier in the century and ultimately created [End Page 667] a cultural phenomenon—the Hamilton of its time. As Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) says about the show’s potential, it could “change Broadway forever” if given...