Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way

Sourcebooks. May 2021. 448p. ISBN 9781492688815. $26.99. THEATER
In this well-researched compilation of behind-the-scenes stories and background, pop culture historian Gaines (Inside Pee-Wee’s Playhouse) celebrates the 100th anniversary of the original staging of the all-Black musical comedy Shuffle Along. The author introduces the four men behind the musical—vocalist Noble Sissle, comedian partners Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, and conductor/pianist Eubie Blake—and their struggles to keep the show afloat. The quartet were determined to change the narrative of the Black experience in America by presenting Black performers in roles that were nuanced and fully developed. However, the show was also steeped in stereotypes, used blackface, and cast only women who passed the colorist “brown paper bag test.” Still, Shuffle Along broke the taboo in American theater against depicting Black romantic love onstage, kick-started the career of a 16-year-old Josephine Baker, and gave us “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which eventually became Harry Truman’s campaign song. And despite failures to revive the production owing to its racist tropes and stereotypes, Gaines persuasively argues that these four men shouldn’t be relegated to the footnotes of history, as their work resulted in monumental gains for many Black performers.
VERDICT Theater buffs and students of Black history will be pleased by this cogent defense of Shuffle Along.
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