‘Shuffle Along’ and the Lost History of Black Performance in America

Ninety-­five years ago in New York, a journalist named Lester Walton bought a ticket to see a much-­buzzed-­about new show, a “musical novelty” that had opened about a week before at the Sixty-­Third Street Theater. Or the Sixty-­Third Street Music Hall, as it was more properly called. A kind of multipurpose performance space, not very big, not very nice, “sandwiched in between garages,” Walton wrote, and “little known to the average Broadway theatergoer.” You could rent the place for the night. It had philosophical lectures, amateur violin recitals and religious meetings, and during the day it showed silent movies: “ ‘Pudd’n Head Wilson,’ with Theodore Roberts, tomorrow.” But on this evening — and for many months to come, as it turned out — the stage belonged to an all-black show called “Shuffle Along,” a comedy with lots of singing and dancing. A problem: The music hall had no orchestra pit, and this show needed an orchestra. It needed space for the band, which happened to include a 25-year-old musician known as Bill Still, later to become the famous composer William Grant Still, but in 1921 a mostly unheard-­of young man from Arkansas, switching among the six or seven instruments he taught himself to play. The production was forced to rip out seats in the front three rows to make room. These were people used to improvising. Among themselves, they referred to the show as “Scuffle Along.”

Les Walton, the journalist in the audience that night, was also a theater man. In St. Louis, a city he left behind 15 years before — and where he got his start as America’s first black reporter for a local daily, writing about golf — he had somehow come to know and collaborate with the legendary Ernest Hogan, a.k.a. the Unbleached American, an early black minstrel and vaudeville comedian who (by some historians’ reckoning) was the first African-­American performer to play before a white audience on Broadway. Walton and Hogan wrote songs together, and it was Hogan who first brought Walton to New York, as a kind of business manager. Hogan was not so much unbleached as the opposite of bleached. He was a black entertainer who painted his face — with burned cork or greasepaint (or in emergencies, lampblack, or in real emergencies, anything black mixed with oil) — to make it appear darker. Or at least to make it appear different. In one picture of Hogan, from the 1890s, he looks more like a sock puppet, wearing a clownish pointed cap.

The blacks-­in-­blackface tradition, which lasted more than a century in this country, strikes most people, on first hearing of its existence, as deeply bizarre, and it was. But it emerged from a single crude reality: African-­American people were not allowed to perform onstage for much of the 19th century. They could not, that is, appear as themselves. The sight wasn’t tolerated by white audiences. There were anomalous instances, but as a rule, it didn’t happen. In front of the cabin, in the nursery, in a tavern, yes, white people might enjoy hearing them sing and seeing them dance, but the stage had power in it, and someone who appeared there couldn’t help partaking of that power, if only ever so slightly, momentarily. Part of it was the physical elevation. To be sitting below a black man or woman, looking up — that made many whites uncomfortable. But what those audiences would allow, would sit for — not easily at first, not without controversy and disdain, but gradually, and soon overwhelmingly — was the appearance of white men who had painted their faces to look black. That was an old custom of the stage, going back at least to “Othello.” They could live with that. And this created a space, a crack in the wall, through which blacks could enter, because blacks, too, could paint their faces. Blacks, too, could exist in this space that was neither-­nor. They could hide their blackness behind a darker blackness, a false one, a safe one. They wouldn’t be claiming power. By mocking themselves, their own race, they were giving it up. Except, never completely. There lay the charge. It was allowed, for actual black people to perform this way, starting around the 1840s — in a very few cases at first, and then increasingly — and there developed the genre, as it were, of blacks-­in-­blackface. A strange story, but this is a strange country.

Ernest Hogan died not too long after bringing Les Walton east to New York, but Walton maintained his interest in the theater and songwriting and had managed a theater in Harlem, the Lafayette. A progressive theater — it was the first major venue in New York to desegregate its audiences, i.e., to let blacks come down from the balcony and sit in the orchestra seats — and Walton worked hard to put serious black theater on the stage. At the same time, he had been making a name for himself as one of the first black arts critics in America, writing for The New York Age, a black newspaper. (His life would get only more interesting — over a decade later, Franklin D. Roosevelt named him an American minister to Liberia.) That evening, he went to see “Shuffle Along” on assignment. It was late May. That week, the Tulsa race riots had erupted more than a thousand miles away. A white mob torched one of the most prosperous black neighborhoods in America.

Walton had already seen the show, with more or less the same cast. He had caught it in Philadelphia a month or so before, near the end of a long road tour meant to shake out the performers’ nerves and generally get the production battle-­hardened for New York. And he loved it — he saw it several times in the end. Which is surprising, maybe, given his interest in serious black theater and in ennobling the black community (in 1913, he campaigned to have the “n” in the word “Negro” capitalized as a matter of journalistic style), because “Shuffle” wasn’t exactly forward-­thinking on race. It broke boundaries, no doubt, but mainly through its success, and by having great pop tunes. Otherwise, it was a blacks-­in-­blackface production. Walton even mentions that there were “more than the usual number of comedians under cork in one show.”

There was, however, an area in which the show genuinely pushed things forward: romance. In “Shuffle Along,” two black people fell in love onstage, and Walton wanted to see how a white audience would handle this. He came to the music hall expressly for that reason, he told us. The theater he had gone to in Philadelphia, the Dunbar, was a black place. Now, Walton wrote, he was “curious to learn if ‘Shuffle Along’ would find its way into the category of what is known, in the language of the performer, as a ‘white folks’ show.’ ” Could the production, in other words, manage to be both black enough to have “it” and at the same time white enough to make loads of money? Specifically, Walton wanted “to observe how the white people in the audience took to Roger Matthews, the tenor, and Lottie Gee, the prima donna, singing ‘Love Will Find a Way.’ ”

What he expected to see was not rage or revolt but something more ambiguous, an occasional discomfort passing through the room, and perhaps at certain moments a holding-­back too, on the part of the cast. “White audiences, for some reason,” Walton wrote, “do not want colored people to indulge in too much lovemaking. They will applaud if a colored man serenades his girl at the window, but if, while telling of his great love in song he becomes somewhat demonstrative and emulates a Romeo — then exceptions are taken.” Black sexuality was dangerous.

Walton was among the first critics of “Shuffle Along,” our first eyes on its original production. His response to the show was positive — “Speaking as a colored American,” he wrote, “I think ‘Shuffle Along’ should continue to shuffle along at the Sixty-­Third Street Theater for a Long Time.” And when he went back in October, he celebrated that the show was now “in its sixth month” at the music hall, assuring readers that the fact would be “pregnant with historical significance” for anyone “conversant with the ups and downs of colored theatricals” and all “the abortive, yet well-­intended efforts of the past.” But Walton’s response was complicated too, or shadowed by something. Facets of the show must have made him uneasy, just as the black-­on-­black romance had made some of the whites in the crowd uneasy. “Shuffle” seemed at times to have one foot stuck in the mire of a murkier racial past, even as it strode boldly forward with the other.

Savion Glover slouches a little. It’s not the slouch of an old man, not stiff — or the diffident slouch of a young one, for that matter — it’s somehow part of his movement, closer maybe to how boxers crouch, but relaxed. It suggests a body that’s resting slightly because it’s about to burst into motion, which he kept doing throughout the morning (this was late last summer).

If the slouch was noticeable, it could have reflected the fact that Glover, the genius child at 42, had been spending hundreds of hours bent forward and pacing around like this, staring down at other people’s feet. For the last few months, he’d worked pretty much exclusively as a choreographer and would stay in that role for months to come as he conceived and staged a wildly ambitious revival of “Shuffle Along,” one of the most significant musicals of the 20th century. He would not appear onstage for this show. Except maybe, it was rumored, for a sort of cameo. There was one dance he liked so much he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay away from it entirely.

We were in a rehearsal space at the New 42nd Street Studios in Manhattan. A long open room with extremely high ceilings (productions have to be able to wheel in huge Broadway props sometimes). Giant windows at the front looked out onto 42nd Street, but no one looked out of them. It was dark and gray and pounding rain that day, as hard as I had ever seen it rain in New York. The noise of it made a strange effect when the dancers were actually dancing, because the sound of all their tap shoes was also loud, body-­shaking, so the two different thunders, theirs and the storm’s, were mixing and fading, creating illusions, and when the tap would stop abruptly, the rain outside for a second seemed like an echo or a rumbling of it.

This happened most often when Glover would spot a mistake or something in his own choreography that he didn’t like and clap his hands to make everything quiet. In front of him in three rows, 15 or so of the most gifted young singer-­dancers in the country would come to an abrupt stop. Their eyes watching him were hard to look away from. Awe was there, but equally something that couldn’t afford to be awed, that was having to pay too close attention and was too professional to indulge it, and the two registers chased each other across their faces. To sit five or six feet away made a person want to reel back decades of career choices and become the world’s most passionate talentless tap dancer. Glover would slide forward into the crowd of dancers toward the person or group of people whose steps he wanted to change. Big loose dreads, tight V-neck T-shirt, tap shoes, sweats. He would stop and flash out some blazing routine. “Like that, like that,” talking while he danced. “Not da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-DA. It’s da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-DA-da-da.” The changes often seemed less rhythmical than mathematical. At tap’s higher levels, a dancer can hit an ungodly number of beats per second, so the variations of pattern that are potential in just two or three seconds’ span can quickly jump beyond a normal person’s ability to follow. “We have seven, so you’re actually coming in on the two.” The dancers picked up Glover’s minuscule tinkering within two to four tries. Some could do it right off. In particular, one young woman, a 22-year-old from Texas named Karissa Royster, had clearly been recognized by the group as having a Rain Woman knack for memorizing Glover’s choreography. She would watch it, do it, then sort of drift around the room repeating it. Everybody’s hands floated at their sides.

On his side on the floor with his elbow cocked and his palm supporting his head lay George C. Wolfe, whose idea this production was. Wolfe is a big old deal in the theatrical world — winner of two Tonys, for directing “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” as well as “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk,” which revolved around Savion Glover’s talents, telling the saga of African-­American history by tracing the evolution of tap. It was an implausible-­sounding idea that succeeded wildly. The show kicked off a renaissance of interest in a form that Glover himself describes as “almost lost,” birthing a generation of what he called, with no modesty but no inaccuracy either, “Noise/Funk babies.” The show had paid a deep and very explicit homage to the black American cultural past and to Glover’s own teachers in the tap field, both the mentors he’d known in life, like Gregory Hines, and the ancestors, the inventors and innovators, people like Bill (Bojangles) Robinson or Ulysses (Slow Kid) Thompson, a spellbinding dancer who performed in the original “Shuffle.” He got his nickname from his ability to perform wild dance moves in completely credible-­looking slow motion, which audiences had just become familiar with through the movies.

Also here, in the corner opposite where I sat, stood Daryl Waters, who worked on the music for both “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Noise/Funk.” And starring in this show — although she wasn’t there that day, except as an energy — was Audra McDonald, the powerhouse actress-­singer and Winner of Six Tony Awards, a phrase that has begun to trail her name like a title. Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell were here — both Tony winners as well. It was a supergroup of black Broadway and designed to be such. At a moment when the conversation about blacks and how they’re represented in American entertainment is as fraught as it has been since “The Birth of a Nation,” this bunch had undertaken to put one of the sacred relics of black theater back in front of the public. There was an inescapable sense that they’d be letting down more than themselves if they failed. An unfair pressure to put on anybody. Also an exciting one, for the people involved. I kept thinking of one of those movies where they’re trying to lift something out of the desert, some buried archaeological monument, and everyone’s wondering if the ropes will hold. Maybe it will fall and shatter. “Shuffle Along” is often called the first successful all-black musical. It wasn’t that — there was a prehistory, 20 or so years earlier — but in between the two pulses had come the Great Migration and the Great War. The list of names alone, of those whose careers “Shuffle” hatched in the original show and later productions, is enough to establish its influence on American theater and song as they played out over the rest of the 20th century: Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Nat King Cole, Florence Mills (one of the greatest who ever lived, said those who heard her sing). Langston Hughes said more than once that “Shuffle Along” was the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. In order to deal with the crush of patrons, the city had to alter the traffic pattern around the theater, turning a stretch of 63rd into a one-way street. It was a supernova. An argument could be made (has been made, by the scholar David S. Thompson in his unpublished “Shuffle Along in Theatrical Context”) that the reason chorus girls, or the stereotypical chorus girls in your mind, dance jazz is “Shuffle Along.” As Wolfe told me, “It introduced syncopation into the American musical,” meaning syncopation but also meaning blackness. Not blackface but black faces. Well, blackface too.

The original “Shuffle” run lasted something like 500 nights, a record, they said, and it toured in different forms for years. There were spinoffs. It was announced that the pioneering blues singer Mamie Smith would appear in a show called “Struttin’ Along.” Nineteen hundred twenty-­one: the year of “Shuffle Along” and the year Mamie’s “Crazy Blues” became the first true black pop success. Before that, prehistory. After that, everything.

The most famous song from “Shuffle,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” is one everybody can still hum. We may not know why we know it, how we heard it (from an old musical? a frog in a cartoon?), but it percolates somehow. Harry S. Truman used it as the theme song for his presidential campaign in 1948. A song written by African-­Americans used as a presidential campaign theme — it would take until Barack Obama’s candidacy for that to happen again. (Bob Dole used “Soul Man,” but that shouldn’t be allowed to count somehow.) It’s questionable whether Truman even knew who wrote it. By 1948, the song’s origins had been scrubbed.

Although “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was originally a love song, the Harry character in “Shuffle Along” is also running for office. He wants to be “Mayor of Jimtown.” But even to write those two sentences, I’ve had to make it sound as though the show had more of a story than it did. The plot of the first “Shuffle Along” was mainly to allow an excuse for the singing and dancing. That was one of the first things Wolfe mentioned when I asked about “creative challenges” he encountered in dealing with the source text. It was the day after the rehearsal, and we were at the Music Box Theater on 45th Street, where the new production will be staged. Irving Berlin made that theater famous. The interior was beautifully baroque-­looking and on the intimate side size-wise. Music-­boxy. Wolfe stood on the stage and admired the empty seats. Lots of them, and very empty. “Look at those boxes,” he gasped. The boxes were elegant.

Creative challenges?

“The book,” he said, meaning the script, the nonmusical part of the show. “Terrible book, bad book. Everybody knows it’s terrible.” Because it was racist? “Because it was bad.” (And, it seems to me, because it was racist, or racially offensive;a typical line: “You ain’t got no business being no mayor and you knows you ain’t, what you talking about being mayors.”) What was a black director doing even messing with that in 2015?

Wolfe said he cared less about the Major Historical Significance of the 1921 show and more about an attitude that he saw as having been present at the beginning of the “Shuffle” story, when the team that put the production together was touring the country, or first getting ready to stage the show in Manhattan. There was a “purity” to that scene, he said, using the last word I ever thought I’d hear about the origins of “Shuffle Along.” In what sense did he mean? “In the sense that they didn’t have time to have a full awareness of what they were doing.” Full awareness, as in, the politics of it? “Yes,” he said. “They weren’t savvy that way. They were too busy being creative.” He’d said “savvy” but had also meant “self-­conscious.” “They lived,” he said, “inside that pure love of wanting to do the thing you do, the part of me that gets into show business.” But weren’t they also having to deal with all sorts of racism, even inside the world of the theater, especially inside it sometimes? “Yes,” he said, “but they were trying to figure out how to make America work for them. It was, How do I keep pushing against this thing in order to be what I need to be?” He asked it with a real urgency that made his chin quiver. It was clearly not an abstract question for a gay black man from Frankfort, Ky., who had conquered Broadway. Nor an arbitrary one in the context of Wolfe’s career. In approaching “Angels in America” 23 years ago, he first keyed into the notion of “performance of self” that runs through the play. It was, he said, “something I understand from having been raised a Negro.”

The tradition of blacks-­in-­blackface was sparked, according to one account, by the circus impresario P.T. Barnum one day in the early 1840s. He had a white kid in one of his shows, a boy by the name of Diamond, who specialized in what was called Juba or Juber dancing. Also “patting Juba.” That meant African dancing, plantation dancing. Expressive, complex, physically taxing. In Juba, you drum on your body, slapping your chest and knees and the soles of your feet. Certain familiar Celtic elements had been mixed into it over the decades and centuries, most obviously the percussive effect of hard-­soled shoes on a wooden floor, which could work as a drum during the dance (think clogging). It was with Juba as inspiration that blacks and Irish-­Americans created what we call tap. Or rather, that’s the kind of simplistic explanation that an actual dance scholar would quibble with every word of, but it’s trueish.

So, Barnum had this Irish kid, John Diamond, doing Juba dancing in his shows. And Diamond would dance in blackface. Patting Juba was seen as a black thing, even if there were Irish and Scottish tinges, so Diamond performed it that way. But one day, around 1841, Barnum found out that Diamond had (supposedly) been dishonest in some financial dealing. Diamond, knowing that Barnum’s wrath was coming, ran off. And now Barnum was without his Juba dancer. Not just any Juba dancer, but the second-­best in the world.

Yes — there was one better. A boy even younger than Diamond. They called him Juba, that’s how good he was. Outside the circus tent, in a tavern or a theater, he and Diamond would compete against each other in challenge matches. They had teams of supporters. People gambled. It seems Juba hardly ever lost. “He defies all competition on ‘the light fantastic,’ ” they wrote in Boston. One of the first times the word “tap,” as a technical term of dance, showed its head was in an advertisement for a match, where we are told a judge will be present to “count the taps.”

The only problem with young Juba, from P.T. Barnum’s point of view, was that he was black. The spectators wouldn’t accept it, or the laws and civic codes wouldn’t permit it, or Barnum himself just couldn’t deal with it. But here is where his cynical genius comes in. He decides to paint Juba black. Same burned cork, same curly black wig. He looked just like Diamond. But people went even more nuts for Juba. He was better.

We don’t know the real name of Juba, the first great American tap dancer, and may never. The encyclopedias say William Henry Lane, but the lone source for that is a white theatrical agent turned journalist turned amateur historian named Thomas Allston Brown, who was not the type to use footnotes, and who anyway did not enter the entertainment world until years after the supposed Lane was dead. Brown’s other two sentences on Lane are anti-­factual. They include the statement that the dancer “married too late” to a white woman, which is a strange thing to say about a man who by most accounts was dead before he reached 30. They also include the claim that in 1852, Lane’s skeleton was placed on display at a music hall in Sheffield, England, but in truth he was still dancing in London in 1852, before he vanished as thoroughly as it is possible to vanish. There is slight reason to suspect that his real name may have been Redmond, though whether that was a first or last name, we cannot say. In any case, the question is academic. He was known as Juba. Prince Juba, Master Juba, Little Juba and Juba the King of All Dancers.

The encyclopedias say he was born in Providence, R.I., around 1825, but an English journalist who interviewed him for The Manchester Times in 1848 — the only journalist who ever spoke to him and wrote about him, as far as can be determined — stated clearly that he was born in New York in 1830, a date that corresponds better with later reports of his age. The Providence theory may have sprung up because the band of minstrel musicians with whom he had toured earlier in his career, the Georgia Champions, formed in that city. When Juba’s great success in England was noted in a Providence paper in 1848, the article made no mention of his having been from there, only that he “formerly gave exhibitions of his skill in this city, at the ninepenny entertainments.” But he had done that in every city on the East Coast.

Juba came up performing in the interracial underworld “halls” in the Five Points neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. That’s probably where Barnum discovered him. He played banjo and tambourine too, but those who saw him said he was the greatest dancer they’d ever witnessed, like Charles Dickens, who in his “American Notes” remembered having watched Juba dance in New York City. Dickens had written under the pen name Boz, so when Juba went to London in 1848, under the sponsorship of a white blackface minstrel named Gilbert Ward Pelham (the leader at that time of the Ethiopian Serenaders, with whom Juba also toured), the young dancer was billed as Boz’s Juba. The coverage he received from the English press from 1848 to 1852 is almost exhausting to follow, it grew to be so extensive, mostly ecstatic in its praise.

All we know about him is that he was a brilliant dancer — an artist, not just an athlete — and that he was the first black entertainer to perform before large crowds of whites in a context that transcended the informal. He was onstage. The explosiveness of his new “tap” style allowed him to cross over. “Not to be irreverent about it,” said the early minstrel S.S. Sanford in 1874, but “he was the ‘John the Baptist,’ preceding by a few years the Jubilee Singers of Tennessee, who are now before the public with the full chorus of songs.”

In the only semi-­naturalistic image we have of Juba performing, his face is coal black. In the one (cartoonish) picture of the Ethiopian Serenaders that includes him, he is indistinguishable from the others, from the white men. They are all painted the same. Only a caption tells us which is him. He’s holding a tambourine and looks about to jump up and start dancing.

When the rehearsal was over, I spent an hour with Glover in a little side room off the rehearsal space. He was on his lunch break. His meal, which he devoured, was from a Caribbean place. Energy food — goat meat, mac and cheese, yams. He had at least four more hours of pacing and dancing to do after this. He was going to burn it all into nothing.

He had a laptop out and was showing me clips he had watched for inspiration after being asked to choreograph the show: the Nicholas Brothers skipping across tabletops in “Stormy Weather” (the sequence that Fred Astaire is said to have called the greatest dance number ever filmed, a superlative that, when you watch the scene, seems like an obvious thing to say). Then some eerie old footage of a “cakewalk,” from an early black vaudeville performance, one of the few that were ever filmed. The women in the clip wore high-­collared Victorian dresses, the men black tailcoats. The cakewalk was a dance, created by slaves in imitation (some accounts say in mockery) of the white minuet. In one common iteration, the dancers would form two lines, one of men, one of women, then the couple at the end would link arms and promenade down between the rows of clapping hands. Each couple was expected to do something distinctive. Some would dance; others would simply present themselves. It was not unlike vogueing. Nor “Soul Train.” Also, while we’re defining things: vaudeville. That’s the world of “variety” shows, mixed shows made up of several brief acts, that dominated the American entertainment world during roughly the half-­century that spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, from, say, 1880 to 1930. The format grew out of minstrel shows and medicine shows. A white vaudeville lineup would often feature one black act, called, counter­intuitively, a “white act.” Lester Walton had the same dynamic in mind when he wondered if “Shuffle Along” could make it as a “white folks’ show.”

Glover asked if I’d seen the recently identified Bert Williams footage, from 1913. Williams — there was a name to conjure while discussing the history of blacks-­in-­blackface shows. It was easy to articulate his relationship to the tradition: He was the pinnacle of it. Williams made art from behind the blackface mask. At the same time, he was haunted and wounded by having to wear it. W. C. Fields claimed to sense “a deep undercurrent of pathos” in Williams. His masterpiece was the song “Nobody,” a nihilistic ditty one of his characters sang to himself when the penny-­tossers walked away, a sort of song-­monologue, as weird and dark, you might sense, when Williams introduced it in 1906 as it sounds today. There could have been no Sam Beckett without Bert Williams. His record of the song sold more than a hundred thousand copies, making him the first black recording artist ever to do so.

The film reels were retrieved from the MoMA archives in 2004. George Wolfe had taken the cast on a field trip to view them. They represent the oldest surviving fragments of a black feature film, part of a very early and almost completely forgotten African-­American filmmaking scene that sprang up before World War I but left no physical traces, mainly because of the extreme fragility (and inflammability) of the old film stock. This footage was more than rare — it was a peek through a keyhole many had assumed was forever blocked. It showed another cakewalk, this time from an outdoor celebration, a “field day.” Williams himself makes up half of one couple. His beautiful partner for the walk laughs delightedly at him. His shoes flap, he walks oafishly on his heels. His smile is inwardly pleased, sublime.

Williams was Bahamian-­born, a strikingly handsome man when he wasn’t in cork. He grew up in Florida and California. In San Francisco, in his late teens, he fell into the medicine-show world. Around 1893, he joined a troupe called the Mastodon Minstrels, and it was while performing with them that he came to know a fellow cast member named George Walker, a young man from Kansas who was to become his closest friend and creative partner for nearly 15 years. Williams and Walker — the black theatrical world at the start of the 20th century is unimaginable without them, and so is “Shuffle Along.”

When Williams and Walker started out in the 1890s, they were billed as “two real coons” who did “buck dancing.” But as the decade progressed, their ideas found some range, and they started producing musical comedies. In 1900, they did “Sons of Ham,” a sort of variety-­farce, full of “oddities hard to describe.” It boasted a “carload of special scenery and electrical effects,” as well as “a chorus of handsome colored girls, 30 in number.” Besides that, it featured “a company of picked talent,” among whom was one Aida Overton. Walker fell in love with her and married her, and she became Aida Overton Walker, the greatest black actress in America before the First World War. Her “Salome” dance took over New York for about a year, around 1912. In the new “Shuffle Along,” Wolfe has Audra McDonald’s character, Lottie Gee, reminisce at one point over having shared the stage with Aida Overton Walker and a piece of singing advice she received from this mythic woman.

Some of the Williams and Walker shows were enormously popular. In fact, most of the claims that are made for “Shuffle Along” — that it was the first black Broadway show, or the first successful one — are really true of earlier Williams and Walker productions. Their 1907-9 show “Bandanna Land” played for capacity houses on tour and at the Majestic Theater at Columbus Circle, a much more legitimate “Broadway” house than the Sixty-­Third Street Music Hall could ever aspire to be, and those audiences included, according to a much younger Lester Walton, “hundreds of white theatergoers.”

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