Digital Learning Project: Preliminary Thoughts

Digital Learning Project: Understanding Shuffle Along and Its Times

Topic/Learning Challenges:  The topic of this project is the musical play Shuffle Along which opened in May 1921.  It was the first Broadway production written, scored, produced, choreographed, and acted by an all-Black ensemble.  While it continued to promote certain stereotypical images of Black people—and its starring comedians appeared in blackface—the show depicted a wider range of Black life than any previous one, with characters including Black politicians, store owners, educators, judges, and other middle-class, “educated” people.  The cast appeared in contemporary dress—not in the ragged clothes of minstrelsy—and the production broke new ground in portraying the romance between its lead characters in a straightforward, dramatic way—rather than as a comic subplot.  The music and dance introduced Black rhythms and styles that were truly revolutionary and influenced all of the musicals—Black and white—that followed in the 1920s.  The limitations of the production—due to what was available to an all-Black company—led to new innovations, showing how Black artists have used seeming roadblocks to their advantage and overcoming prejudice through humor and guile.

The creators of Shuffle Along: Noble Sissle (lyrics), Aubrey Lyles (book), Eubie Blake (music), Flournoy Miller (book):  While Sissle and Blake always appeared on stage wearing tuxedos and never donned blackface, the lead comedians/authors, Miller and Lyles, wore blackface and stereotypical “raggedy” clothes on stage–but not in photographs promoting the show, like this one, that appeared in white newspapers.

The learning challenges for students of American theater will focus on interpreting and understanding several elements of the show, including the blackface humor and its use of dialect; understanding the prejudices of both the white and Black audiences of the day; understanding how the actors/creators used these prejudices to their own ends; and evaluating how this production paved the way for more enlightened portrayals of Black life on stage.

Primary Sources:  This site will draw on three sets of primary sources:

  1. Production photographs from the original production.
  2. Contemporary reviews and commentaries by Black and white critics.
  3. Recorded or written oral history interviews and documents created by the show’s creators and performers.

Audience and Engagement:  The primary audience for this project will be high school and college age students studying African-American culture and theater of the early 20th century.  These students will be engaged through a series of activities asking them to interpret the primary sources using historical procedures: images; written reviews and documents; and recorded oral histories.  They will be asked to evaluate the primary sources for their reliability and accuracy; interpret them as to what they tell us about the theatrical world of their day; and use them to create a set of research questions and preliminary conclusions to better understand the contribution of Black performers to 20th century American musical theater.

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