Tap, Race, and Broadway’s Shuffle Along

Cast of the stage production "Shuffle Along" (1921). Courtesy New York Public Library.

This past Thursday and Friday, I witnessed the Reactivating Memory symposium come to life. The symposium was months in the making, acknowledging the centennials of two important events in American history, the Tulsa Race Massacre and the opening of the hit Broadway show Shuffle Along. Friday’s symposium included performances by singers, poets, musicians, and dancers, as well as three panels with scholars and journalists. There was also an event on Thursday night that celebrated the reunion of cast and creatives from the 2016 Broadway show Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. 

Both of these events were really exciting to watch, even on Zoom. Thursday’s reunion included Savion Glover, one of the most influential tappers and choreographers of the 21st century. I appreciated how all at the reunion celebrated the genius of their director, George C. Wolf. They expressed gratitude for him creating a safe space while pushing them to achieve the most they could, which is the combination I believe is what makes art special. 

Friday’s symposium was full of intellectual conversation that developed my understanding of Blackface in the arts, the role of Black artists in the 1920s, and the crucial role of power in shaping history. Some panelists discussed questions like how do we know what happened and what don’t we know? The 1921 Shuffle Along was largely written off for its use of blackface and for having a thin plot, but the panelists discussed what a disservice this outlook did for the show. It was so much more, full of innovation and beautiful music, with excellent pacing. Another panelist emphasized that we shouldn’t put our notions of a musical’s structure onto the show, as norms and structures were different then. This is important to remember when looking back on any moment in history. Another thread was that we keep emphasizing “firsts” in various arenas that are not at all firsts. One panelist pointed out that there were more Black performers on Broadway in 1924 than there were in 2016, a year that was heralded as a breakthrough for performers of color on Broadway with Hamilton and Shuffle Along. There is great precedent for a lot of our accomplishments and it’s odd that we seem to forget about them.

One of the highlights of the day was watching my tap teacher, Michael J. Love, perform at the end. He did a 15-minute tap performance that played with Duke Ellington music. The way he interacted with the music was inspiring. It wasn’t static. It felt like one form of music was feeding off the other. In the talkback after the performance, he discussed the idea of queer fabulations. Though jazz of the 1920s might not have expressly acknowledged queerness among its performers, what does it mean to imagine it was there? How can we piece together clues? How can we do that through dance? Overall, the day was incredibly thought provoking and showed off the best that art can do.

–Marissa Michaels