Articles Interviews Theater

Forgotten History Of Visual Storytelling: When Black Artists Came To Broadway

Author/ historian Caseen Gaines talks to Room 2 about Shuffle Along, the first all-Black musical to succeed on Broadway.

It stands to reason that most Visual Storytellers want to learn everything we can about the origins and evolution of our chosen craft.

Unfortunately, certain aspects have been all but lost.

With his new book Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote The Rules Of The Great White Way, author/ historian Caseen Gaines is helping to preserve and promote the story of Shuffle Along – the first all-Black musical to succeed on Broadway.

He was kind enough to swing by Room 2 and talk about why this century-old production should be remembered…

Why Is The Story Of ‘Shuffle Along’ Relevant To Visual Storytellers Today?

‘Footnotes’ by author and historian Caseen Gaines is the true story of the four black artists who created the first all-black show to succeed on Broadway, ‘Shuffle Along.’ This image shows two of them, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, charismatically performing a song together at the piano.

[Caseen] I decided to title the book Footnotes because of this idea that there were so many moments in history whether it’s Shuffle Along (or any of the myriad characters or performers that are mentioned in the narrative) that were huge deals back then but are completely forgotten (or barely remembered) today.

…even someone like Josephine Baker who has almost a legendary status.

I don’t know how many people in 2021 are familiar with the full body of her work, and life…

Even though we know better, to some extent, we feel that history begins and ends with us.

We believe that, a hundred years from now, history will remember someone like Oprah or Beyoncé when, in reality, it probably won’t.

…because there were Oprahs and Beyoncés a hundred years ago.

So, yes, these performers worked in Hollywood, in radio, in television, on stage, but they were sort of forgotten.

[Chris] Do you think it’s accurate to say that the artists who wrote and composed Shuffle Along were idealists and dreamers? In the later interviews it seems like they knew their work was more important than mere entertainment…

[Caseen] I think it was both of those things at the same time.

They wanted to open doors for people. There was something very deliberate about that for sure.

Noble Sissle is one of the four men at the center of the narrative. His father was a Methodist preacher and always wanted Noble to become a preacher as well.

But, obviously, he never did.

He felt like he was almost an evangelist for bringing Black art to white audiences.

There is also something to be said for the fact that they were looking to get paid. They knew they were talented.

Not just those four, of course, but Black artists in general.

As much as it was about the fight for representation, I think it was also about: “We’re good and you’re going to come see us and you’re going to pay us what we deserve for our abilities and our talent and our skill.”

So, I think it was both throughout most of their careers.

What Did ‘Shuffle Along’ Specifically Contribute To Live Theater?

[Caseen] In the world of theater, I would say that everything about the modern musical (or even the classical musical) is different because of Shuffle Along.

That’s not an exaggeration.

The biggest thing is probably that it brought syncopation or a jazz rhythm to the stage.

Almost any show that you can think of has some sort of suspension of a note, some kind of a swinging jazzy beat. Anything that’s outside of a straight meter really comes out of Shuffle Along.

It also brought a dancing woman’s chorus to Broadway.

Prior to that, women didn’t dance on stage. So, you think about any show that has a chorus now really comes out of Shuffle Along in 1921.

It’s really important to highlight that Noble Sissle, one of the four men at the center of the narrative, became the first elected president of the Negro Actors Association.

It was an organization that fought for better representation of Black folks on screen.

They fought to not only get Black people fair wages and health insurance for their work, but also acting roles that weren’t just porters and butlers and maids.

What Inspired You To Write ‘Footnotes’?

[Caseen] I became interested in this project by sheer accident when I saw a 2016 version of Shuffle Along.

It was partially a reimagining of the original play, but it was really more a backstage drama that focused on some of the turmoil behind the scenes of the show.

After the performance, I had the opportunity to be in the audience for a pretty intimate talkback.

What I remember most vividly was that they were dismantling aspects of the merch stands while we were still in the house, because there were only going to be two more performances.

So, I was watching this show get dismantled in real time.

One of the performers, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who played Flournoy Miller, expressed in the talkback that he felt like there was something almost “ill-fated” about Shuffle Along.

…that throughout history it kept getting buried and forgotten and lost.

And he felt that this show in 2016 was getting buried and lost yet again.

The interesting coda to this is that the 2016 Shuffle Along was nominated for ten Tony Awards.

In fact, it was one of the most nominated shows in history, but it lost every award because it was up against Hamilton in every single category.

It’s interesting to me that this show that was celebrating this watershed moment for representation in America and brought new voices and faces to the stage, ended up being overshadowed by a show that also brought new voices and faces to the stage.

And that was really the catalyst that made me realize that, as a writer, this was something I wanted to try and preserve the history of.

What Was It Like For The All-Black Cast To Perform In The 1920’s?

This photo from ‘Footnotes’ by author and historian Caseen Gaines shows the performers Florence Mills, Roger Matthews, and Lottie Gee in a publicity still for ‘Shuffle Along’ in 1921.

[Chris] The book begins with a tense moment backstage. Can you tell us about that?

[Caseen] Yeah, it’s the first performance of Shuffle Along in New York on May 24th, 1921.

There’s a duet about to take place on stage, of two Black characters singing their feelings of love for each other.

One of the four main characters in the book is out there conducting the orchestra…

…while backstage the other three have the stage door open and are ready to hightail it to Harlem in the event that a race riot breaks out.

They have received telegrams warning as much.

(Shuffle Along had played throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania before it landed in New York and so it had been written about.)

There were concerns that Broadway audiences, i.e. white people of means, would not tolerate seeing particularly Black women on stage expressing a human emotion that wasn’t played for comedy.

It was okay to have a flirty character or hypersexual character, but just a woman singing a ballad was heresy.

Ultimately, they were fine.

The audience embraced that song in the show, but it was a very scary moment.

Shuffle Along actually had several touring companies and they toured everywhere.

They toured the Deep South, they toured the Midwest, they toured everywhere with this show.

I still have a hard time wrapping my head around that now.

It’s a testament to several things:

The music in the show is amazing.

The comedy was very funny. (Some of it certainly trafficked in racial stereotypes. I definitely want to acknowledge that.)

It wasn’t just a novelty. It was also entertaining.

I think, because the show was good, people found a way to enjoy it, even if they otherwise might have had an issue with Black people.

…and, in fact, they very often did.

The treatment that a lot of these performers received on the road, or when trying to get a hotel or dine at a local café…

…the red carpet was not rolled out to them in a lot of places.

…but when they were on stage it was different.

I think there’s something to be said about the power of art.

Right now, in this climate, where there’s so much discussion over representation and access into what’s thought to be primarily white spaces…

(Broadway’s still thought to be a primarily white space.)

…to know that there were nine all-Black shows that ran between 1921 and 1924 is just a staggering fact.

…and these shows made money!

They were seen by Black and white people alike, by celebrities like La Guardia, the Rockefellers, Al Jolson and Benny Bryson…

…that these people were regulars at the show is really amazing.

On the flip side, there is something that feels almost sinister or depressing about the fact that so little of this history is known a century later.

We do know about shows that happened a hundred years ago, but this show and these shows have been lost.

Something about it feels deliberate to me and almost makes one wonder about what other treasures are buried beneath America’s surface.

How Do You Write A Historical Epic In 350 Pages?

[Chris] Footnotes is a historical epic. The timeline spans from Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood. It covers World War 1, how Shuffle Along connects to the Blues, how Europe was different from America, the history of Harlem…

[Caseen] That was the trickiest aspect of the book.

…but it’s also what felt most important to me.

I can’t write three hundred and fifty pages [purely based on the performances of one] show.

But what I can do is try and put that show in its proper context.

It is impossible to talk about Shuffle Along without talking about the fact that Eubie Blake, the composer, had two parents who were enslaved people.

Noble Sissle’s father was also enslaved. His mother was actually not born enslaved, but her mother was. And because her mother was freed with nothing, she could not afford to take care of her and so she was given away to a friend who had that ability.

You can’t separate this show from the context of the ‘Red Summer’ that you alluded to, when Black soldiers were coming back from World War 1.

Noble Sissle fought in World War 1 as part of the war effort, and when he and the 369th regiment of all-Black soldiers went to France, they were greeted wonderfully by the French…

…or how Harlem became Harlem.

You can’t divorce Shuffle Along from what happened.

Noble Sissle succinctly said that with all the horrible things going on in the country at the time, one would think that the show would not succeed.

…but I think the show succeeded because people wanted escapism in the early part of the 1920s.

Tell Us About Your Decision To End The Book With Your Own Present-Day Perspective…

In this photo from ‘Footnotes’ by author and historian Caseen Gaines we see Flornoy Miller, Noble Sissle, Eubie Black and Aubrey Lyles posing for a still together.

[Chris] Footnotes ends on this great coup de grâce where you share your opinions and what it means for you and for all of us, today. Was that always the plan?

[Caseen] Honestly, I didn’t know how the book was going to end.

…but after writing three hundred or so pages, I had questions. I had thoughts. I had things that I had been grappling with over the years of working on it.

I didn’t want to insert myself too much, but I wanted to pull out some of the things that I felt were important for us to keep in the forefront of this conversation.

Honestly, I think some of that was informed by working on it in the spring and summer of 2020 where there was so much going on, whether it was the election, or it was Black Lives Matter, or Broadway being dark.

It was really weird to be writing a book about Broadway play while being unable to go see a show or walk around the city.

There was something about that moment that felt very suspended in time.

…and it put me in a different mindset for thinking about this show that felt very suspended in time as well.

[Chris] Wow. Yeah, that makes sense.

[Caseen] But I do love that ending of the book.

After I had written it, I almost felt like the book itself was a prologue and the eleven pages at the end were the meat and potatoes [laughs].

I always tell people, “It’s labeled as the epilogue to the book, but you must read it.”

You can download archival recordings of the original production of Shuffle Along for free.

Special thanks: To our guest Caseen Gaines, the team at Sourcebooks for providing scheduling assistance, our Production Coordinator Mari Gonzalez Curia and Content Producer Mona Lloyd for editorial contributions to this post. The interview was lightly edited for grammar, clarity and time.

Get Our Free Artists’ Mindset Course:

Subscribe via email to get each lesson in our new artists’ mindset course, industry interviews and notifications about mentorship opportunities. It’s 100% free and we will always respect your privacy.