This Day In History: May 23

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Deeply in debt and relegated to a shabby theater, the musical Shuffle Along debuts at the Sixty-Third Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921. The odds are stacked against the revue-style show, written and performed by African Americans, but it will run for over a year, making it the first major Black American musical on the Great White Way.

Shuffle Along was written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, vaudeville veterans who worked together for over six decades. Loosely based around the story of two crooked friends, Sam and Steve, each of whom runs for mayor of “Jimmytown, USA” promising to make the other police chief if he wins, Shuffle Along had its roots in vaudeville, jazz and minstrelsy. Modern critics grapple with the question of whether Shuffle Along perpetuated racist minstrel tropes or represented the moment at which African Americans broke out of the confines of blackface minstrelsy; the answer may be both. In fact, even as they broke barriers by performing an all-Black show, the Black performers still had to wear blackface to avoid making white audiences uncomfortable. At the same time, the show featured a developed romance plot between two Black characters, something unheard of in mainstream theater at the time.

Although the production was haphazard and reportedly run on almost no budget, it was a hit. Shuffle Along ran for 504 shows, an unqualified success by the standards of the day, winning over critics and audiences despite their prejudices. In a review that was laced with snark and racism, one white critic still could not help but rave: “It is perhaps fortunate that there are dead intervals between the songs of ‘Shuffle Along.’ Because some of the music is as insidious and heady as absinthe.” It may be difficult to appreciate today due to its use of tropes that have long-since been rejected, but Shuffle Along was a watershed moment in American theater, paving the way for mainstream acceptance of African Americans on stage.