Portfolio Post Number 3

The podcast What Happened to Lottie Gee? probes the history of this early African-American stage actress to try to uncover some of the reasons why she was never able to develop a lasting career.  A well-known and successful performer in the late teens and early ‘20s, Gee was the star of Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical written, scored, produced, and acted by an all-Black company.  During the show’s run, her photo regularly appeared in both the Black and white press, and she was a celebrated and sought-after performer for benefits and nightclub appearances.  However, by the mid-to-late ‘20s, Gee—like many other African-American performers—was struggling to find work.  Despite her great popularity, she was never recorded or filmed, and her image never appeared on popular sheet music.

I wanted to tell this story through Gee’s own experiences and—as much as possible—in her own voice.  However, source material in Gee’s own words was scarce, and the few interviews that did appear in the popular press with Gee sometimes sounded as if they were carefully rewritten by the reporters themselves or the PR people involved in placing the article.  Through genealogical and archival research, certain facts could be established about Gee’s life and performing career.  Rather than present these through a third-person narration, I thought it was important to “reproduce” Gee’s own voice—at least through having her parts being recorded by a Black woman.  This involved writing a script in my own words to try to approximate how she might have told this story.  It meant I had to reimagine these facts through the lens of her life and experience and come as close as possible to relaying the information as she might have done.

Similarly, for contemporary newspaper reviews, I enlisted a separate actor to read this material rather than incorporating into the generic narration.  For the supporting material—including period recordings and oral history interviews with composer Eubie Blake and Gee’s contemporary Alberta Hunter—I drew as much as possible on the original materials, even though the audio quality was often poor.  I hoped that the actual period material would lend the podcast a certain level of authenticity and recreate aurally the period for the listener.

My central “argument” was that Gee’s declining popularity was a product of several forces at work in the wider culture.  First and foremost, it was always difficult for African-American performers—and particularly female performers—to achieve long-running success on stage.  Just to appear in a legitimate Broadway theater was revolutionary for the times.  And, yet, as other Black shows and performers following in the wake of Shuffle Along’s success, the white audience quickly tired of the novelty of seeing Blacks on stage.  Further, Black vocalists of Gee’s era were limited to a narrow palette of possibilities: their repertory was expected to be either sacred (in the form of spirituals) or secular (in the form of blues or risqué songs).  Gee emulated classically trained singers while striving to appeal to a white audience—at the same time that this singing style was being outmoded by blues and jazz vocalists.  Shuffle Along was progressive in its dance and music to a certain degree, but also looked back to earlier successful (white) models—and Gee was firmly a product of this uneasy marriage.  The result was as times and tastes changed, her career floundered.

I would evaluate my project based on the quality of the historical research; the use of source materials; the quality of the script (both as it tells the story and how it attempts to present Gee’s voice); and the overall assembly of the disparate materials into (hopefully) a coherent whole.

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