Two events in 1921—more than a thousand miles apart—had a profound impact on African American history: the production of the all-Black musical Shuffle Along and the Tulsa race massacre. A century on, an online workshop held at Princeton, Reactivating Memory, sought to explore the relationship between these seemingly disparate events and consider their legacy in Black life today. Our host Mélena Laudig sat down with Michael J. Love, A.J. Muhammad, and Dr. Catherine M. Young, all contributors to the team that organized this fascinating workshop. Tune in to learn more about how they balance performance, scholarship, and activism, and to dig into the history of Shuffle Along and the legacy of Black theatrical practice.
The Culture of __
- Brian D. Valencia, “Musical of the Month: Shuffle Along,” NYPL Blog, February 10, 2012
- “Show Clips: SHUFFLE ALONG, Starring Audra McDonald,” Broadwaycom, May 10, 2016
The Breakdown - Guest Info
Michael J. Love is an interdisciplinary tap dance artist—a choreographer, scholar, and educator. His embodied research intermixes Black queer feminist theory and aesthetics with a rigorous practice that critically engages the Black cultural past as it imagines Black futurity. In Austin, Texas, his work has been supported and presented by Fusebox Festival, ARCOS Dance, Ground Floor Theatre, and The Cohen New Works Festival. In 2016, he received an Austin Critics’ Table Award in dance. Love has also collaborated with transmedia artist Ariel René Jackson on video and performance projects which have been featured in or programmed by The New York Times Style Magazine’s #TBlackArtBlackLife series, the New Museum (New York, NY), CUE Art Foundation (New York, NY), the Galleries at the University of Northern Colorado, the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington, and the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural, and Genealogy Center (Austin, TX). Love's performance credits include the Broadway laboratory for Savion Glover and George C. Wolfe’s "Shuffle Along" and roles in works by Baakari Wilder as well as Andrew Nemr’s New York-based company Cats Paying Dues. Love holds an M.F.A. in Performance as Public Practice from The University of Texas at Austin and is an alumnus of Emerson College (Boston, MA). (Credit: Princeton Lewis Center for the Arts)
As a dramaturg/researcher, A.J. Muhammad has worked on The Black History Museum…According to The United States of America by Zoey Martinson (HERE Arts Center) and other productions ranging in different arenas ranging from indie theater to higher education. He has collaborated with the educator and activist Daniel Banks on new works, revivals and devised theater projects for over two decades. A.J. is currently on the producing team for the OBIE award-winning The Fire This Time Festival. He is also a librarian in the Jean Blackwell Research and Reference Division at the Schomburg Center and a team member at CLASSIX. (Credit: Princeton Lewis Center for the Arts)
Catherine Young studies the politics of representation in popular U.S. entertainments including vaudeville, circus, and Broadway. Her Animal Studies work bridges archival research and contemporary theory, connecting historical performance to current politics. She is completing a book manuscript on class formation, racism, and transatlantic animal performance during the vaudeville era. In addition, she is adapting a German play into a musical titled Goethe’s Poodle. She is committed to critical pedagogy. (Credit: Princeton Lewis Center for the Arts)
See, Hear, Do
- Reactivating Memory Modules
- Reactivating Memory Video Replay
- Blindspot: Tulsa Burning, npr.org
- “‘Footnotes’ Explores the Historic All-Black Cast...” WABE City Lights
- “70th Annual Tony Awards 'Shuffle Along',” BroadwayInHD, Oct 15, 2016
- Broadway Advocacy Coalition
[(0:05)] Melena Laudig: I'm Melena Laudig, and you're listening to the official podcast of Princeton University's Department of African-American studies. Welcome to the 5th episode of our second season. Before we begin, we'd like to welcome new listeners and offer a quick reminder of what we're all about. The aim of this podcast is to address questions and themes spanning African-American and Black Diaspora Studies through engaging interviews with scholars and activists, as well as our own takes on black culture and cultural production.
Our first segment, 'the culture of' introduces us to our topic through discussions about popular culture today. The main segment, 'the breakdown' is the conversation about the episodes issues. Finally, our segment titled, see, hear, do' will give you some recommendations of where to turn next to keep learning more. In our last episode, we talked about the efforts universities of taken up to reckon with their legacies of slavery. This time, we will spotlight a current effort at Princeton to bring the black musical tradition and racial violence during the Jim Crow Era into dialogue.
This past September organizers at Princeton brought together a group of artists, journalists, and scholars for Reactivating Memory. A virtual symposium that considered the relationship between two pivotal events in 20th century black history that took place within weeks of one another. The first will shuffle along in all black Broadway musical that helped to usher in the jazz age. The second something more folks have no doubt learned about over the last few months was the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre in which the Greenwood District of Tulsa Oklahoma commonly described as Black Wall Street, was burned to the ground by white mobs leaving countless dead and thousands displaced from their homes and livelihoods. What can these events teach us about black artistry and success, as well as white violence? How can documentation and performance helped us redress the past? Episode 5: Reactivating Memory.
The 1920s were an absolutely pivotal decade in African-American history in large part because of the great migration. A period during which black folks flood the Jim Crow South seeking new opportunities and transform Northern cities in the process. It was a time of hope and contradictions, and opportunity in the North did not mean equality. These complications played out on Broadway, where black musicals had grown scarce in the early decades of the 20th century after initial successes. Due to the economic troubles and racial tensions spurred by World War 1, producers were unwilling to take risk on shows that featured black casts and writers.
Shuffle Along which opened at New York City 63rd Street Music Hall in May of 1921 helped change that set in the fictional all black locale of Jim town, USA. The plot centers around the unraveling of an election pact between two dishonest grocery store owners. Though it wasn't the first, it was certainly the most prominent musical holy written and performed by African-Americans to date becoming popular among mixed-race audiences. So much so that 63rd Street had to be converted to a one-way, and tickets for the show just off of Broadway commanded higher prices than the other shows in town. Shuffle Along left its mark by opening up Broadway to black talent.
Poet, Langston Hughes even called at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance yet grappling with the legacy of this work is complicated. It doesn't have the canonical status enjoyed by the Tin Pan Alley musicals written by white composers, and efforts to claim a space for Shuffle Along in the canon tend to obscure the ways in which it dealt in harmful stereotypes and performance practices of the era like black face one week after the plays New York opening, the terror and violence that black communities faced even amid the successes of cultural productions like Shuffle Along became crystal clear.
On May 31st and June 1st, 1921 white mobs destroyed a thriving black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma known as the Greenwood District. Historians estimate that 300 people were killed and 1,200 homes destroyed. The racial violence at Greenwood was spurred by a series of, unfortunately, common encounters, accusations of impropriety, police detention, but it's thrust was directed towards the businesses and institutions black people had built as much as the residents themselves. Jim town was not Greenwood, but beneath Shuffle Along celebration of black joy through tap dance and Vaudeville, lie subtle references to black folks everyday experiences of racialized violence. Examining Tulsa and Shuffle Along side by side, raises questions about how historical memory is created, suppressed, and reactivated. What can we learn by revisiting the ways in which Tulsa and Shuffle Along have been selectively remembered and documented? How can contemporary performers contribute to critical reassessment and remembering?
Three of the organizers of Reactivating Memory recently sat down with me to talk about these and other questions. Michael J. Love is an interdisciplinary tap dance artists working between choreography, scholarship, and education. His work engages with black queer feminist theory and explores how black futurity has been imagined in the black cultural past. Michael is currently a Princeton Arts fellow, and a lecturer, and the program on dance at Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts. A J. Muhammad is a dramaturg and researcher who has worked on productions of new theatrical works and revivals ranging from Indie theater to higher education. He serves on the production teams for the Obie award-winning, Fire This Time Festival, and classics. A group devoted to reimagining the theatrical canon by centering rarely performed classic works by black writers. And finally, Dr. Catherine Young is a lecturer in Princeton University's writing program. She studies and teaches on the politics of representation in American popular entertainment and is completing a book on transatlantic performance in the Vaudeville era.
I was delighted to interview these scholars, performers, and producers and get some more insight into what went into this fascinating symposium. [music] Thank you all so much for joining us today. To kick things off, we wanna hear a little bit more about each of you and your involvement with Reactivating Memory. Catherine, why don't we start with you?
[(7:04)] Dr. Catherine Young: So, I'm Catherine M. Young, and I am a theater historian who researches popular entertainments including Vaudeville musicals and circus. And I'm interested in how the commercial context impacts the production and reception of live performance, and I'm particularly interested in the politics of how difference is represented on stage, especially racial and gender differences. And, um, I am a lecturer in the Princeton writing program, and I was one of the, um, coordinators, formulators, conspirators, [chuckles] around, ah, Reactivating Memory.
[(7:49)] Melena: Amazing. Thanks for sharing. Um, AJ, would you like to share a little bit?
[(7:55)] AJ Muhammad: Ah, yes. Hi, this is A J. Muhammad, and, um, I wear different hats and one of the hats that I wear is, um, I'm a-I'm on the producing team of classics, which is a collective or it was a collective or company that was found [inaudible] collective or company interchangeably. Um, it was founded by, um, a Warrior Tempo in 2017, and a Warrior Tempo is a black woman, um, theater, director and theater maker, and she established classics in 2017 to explode the theater canon, ah, or what we think of the theater canon to include, to expand the canon, to-to celebrate and spotlight the work of, um, playwrights from the African diaspora via a series of different initiatives. And so that's, ah, classics, um, has been a residence with the Lewis Center for the Arts as earlier this year and, um, as part of, um, as part of the residency, we got the opportunity to, um, to-to-to join forces, myself and the other, ah, Classic- Classics team members, which include, um, Amanda Thomas, ah, Dominic-Dominic Rider, and Brittany Bradford. We got the chance to, um, join Catherine, um, in terms of planning and organizing around the symposium, ah, Reactivating Memory.
[(9:15)] Melena: Fantastic. Um, and we'll make sure to include more info about Classics in the show notes that people can check it out and learn more if they're interested. And last, but certainly not least, Michael, can you tell us about your performance practice and how you came to be involved with Reactivating Memory?
[(9:32)] Michael J. Love: Sure. So, my name is Michael J. Love. I am an interdisciplinary tap dance artist, and I like to talk about my work. I like to tell people that, um, my embodied research intermixes black queer feminist theory and aesthetics with my rigorous practice, and I'm always looking for ways to sort of engage the black cultural past and use that to imagine black [inaudible]. So this year, I began my time as a 2021 to 2023 Princeton University Arts fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts where I'm also lecturing at the dance program currently. I'm pretty recently after I received the news that I was going to be an Arts fellow, I also got a call or maybe an email from Catherine and Stacy, Dr. Stacy Wolf, asking me if I wanted to be involved, ah, with planning the symposium, and I say yes. So, it was a good way for me to sort of like enter my time as a- as an Arts fellow. It's been really great to work with the folks from Classics, and Catherine, and Dr. Wolf, um, and everyone at the Lewis Center to make Reactivating Memory happen.
[(10:39)] Melena: Lovely. And I'd love to dive into a little bit more about how this, ah, how this came together. I know Catherine, you said you were one of the conspirators [chuckles] for the symposium, so would you like to share a little bit more about how the symposium came about? How people collaborated to bring this idea into fruition?
[(10:58)] Catherine: I can. I wrote it out and I was like, "Oh," this is like a long story. [laughs] So what I'm hoping is--
[(11:08)] Melena: We've got time. [chuckles]
[(11:08)] Catherine: Well, so what I'm hoping is I can say it and then obviously you all will like edit as needed, and then hopefully, I'm not as interested in talking about like I would love to hear AJ and Michael speak to the like collaborative process, but I can just talk about the initial motivation, um, that comes out of my experience as a theater historian studying, um, the original stage musical Shuffle Along, which was created in 1921 by, ah, all-black creative team. And so that show, it was financed largely by white producers, but there was an all-black creative team of composer Eubie Blake, lyricist Noble Sissle, and the comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. And so, they wrote the dialogue, and then there were dance arrangements by Charles Davis and Lawrence Deas. And then it was a-an all-black cast, and it was known for being very innovative, sort of ushering in the jazz era having this syncopated jazz for that moved away from older forms like the waltz and use newer forms like the foxtrot, and there was this dynamic chorus of dancing women, which, ah, Michael can speak to, um, and a group of male singers called the Harmony Kings.
So it's just like really incredible musical comedy. The plot was this very ridiculous farcical story about a rigged, mayoral election in an all-black town. So it's full of like hijinks and silliness, but it also featured a sincere love story between two young lovers. And that is historically very important because there was a lot of resistance to white audiences taking black romance and black sentiments seriously. And then, we're also to-- This is, I think maybe one of the most overlooked parts of it is that there's these two young friends like girlfriends, who are best friends, who are like modern and jazzy, and they get all the best songs. And, um, so I also love that about it.
And then, it also, um, it partially integrated the audience. So black audience members were in the orchestra, ah, rather than up high upper balcony for the first time at Shuffle Along. So it's known for all of these innovations, but then, at the same time, it's really marked by all of these residual 19th century Minstrelsy conventions for the comic male characters specifically. They are in black face makeup and speaking in dialect. So these are black performers in black face, and there's also an old-fashioned sentimental like "Mammy" song. So there's just a lot of internal contradictions in the show itself, but it ran on Broadway for over a year, years success, multiple tour productions, Josephine Baker got her start one of the tour's. Paul Robeson was a replacement Harmony King. It was just such a hit show, but then it neglected in theater history, so basically, unless someone was a Harlem Renaissance scholar or like a tap-dancing scholar, they usually hadn't heard of it.
So, there's just this general urge to, um, recuperate, right? And sort of bring it more into, like the mainstream conversation. Like, for instance, Showboat is so famous, and it's only seven years later, right? But it's like what, um, ah, Shuffle Along was mostly forgotten. So I think-- So I had been wanting to... I knew that I was hoping that some kind of major institution like the New York Public Library or some entity would do something to mark Shuffle Along centennial, but I wasn't working anywhere full time. I was teaching part-time at a few different schools. So I didn't really have anywhere to like hang my hat, you know, in terms of those sort of like institutional ambitions. But then, by the time 2020 rolled around, I had been at Princeton for two years, and so-- And Professor Stacy Wolf was one of the very few people I knew outside of the writing program. So I approached her and she said, yes, which was incredibly gracious of her, and then, ah, she approached Awoye, and that wound up to be really in sync with Classics residency, and so it all- it evolved from there. And AJ, I would love to hear your perspective as a Classics member like how that folded into your already existing presence on, ah, on campus and just sort of like how that all went?
[(15:56)] AJ: Yes. So, ah, so as I had mentioned the first, um, so as a part of our residency with, um, the Lewis Center which is, um, so, Awoye Timpo, she-she's a friend of Jane Cox, and I think Awoye had conversations with Jane Cox and telling Jane about the work we're doing with Classics and, um, Jane was very interested in, um, having us being residents or-or a partner with Princeton somehow. So Classics-- Under the classes umbrella we have some-we have- there's a lot of different projects happening at the same time. And I-I also want to acknowledge how Jane Cox who has been incredible in terms of, um, saying yes to us and giving us the opportunity to, um, kind of realize some of the goals that we have at Classics which is to really transform the way people think of theater and-and-and-and not just like these because, of course, when you think about, you know, the theater canon, there are only certain names that come up in the canon, but-but in reality, you know, there's so many playwrights of different ethnicities and nationalities, ah, whose work has been neglected similar to what Catherine was saying about Shuffle Along, so the original Shuffle Along.
So, um, so the first-my first event that-that we did in collaboration with the Lewis Center was a program that was around, um, the reactivate-- Not just a reactivating, but just kind of, um, exploring plays that were written by black playwrights who are part of the Negro theater Union, the Negro theater unit of the works proj- the works project. Um, project during the great depression, and that was earlier this year. And while we were planning that event, we were also planning-we had also been in talks with Catherine Young and Stacy Wolf about planning the Shuffle Along, Tulsa Race Massacre Symposium. So, a lot of the work that we do is around, um, illuminating works by black playwright, by black dramatist. I think Shuffle Along fit in perfectly with the work that we're doing because part of-part of-- One of the initiatives of Classics is a podcast called-- It is called Reclamation, and the first installment of the podcast deals with black, ah, black performers in the 19th century and early 20th century. So it was a, of course, it was, um, synchronicity, um, and-and there's that quote someone who says, um, the universe has impeccable timing so it just tied in right with the work that we were doing as part of reclamation and also, um, the federal theater unit- the Negro unit project that-that we did with Princeton, um, especially, during that, um, for the time era, the early 20th century.
So, it just-- Everything's just dovetailed in and I'm just really excited that-that we had co-conspirators, you know, including Catherine, and Stacy, and-and Michael, and, um, and Marissa Michaels, who was also on- who was a Princeton student and who's also on our team who's, um, an incredible researcher and, you know, in-incredible young woman. So does that answer your question? [laughs] Because I know there's a lot of that.
[(19:05)] Melena: [chuckles] It definitely does. It definitely does. Um, and just so many important and interesting things that you all highlighted about Shuffle Along. I wanna learn more about these, you know, these black friendship that's portrayed in the musical. The interactive audience, um, is really fascinating and then just though, the work that Classics does to, as you said reclaim and eliminate black playwrights. Um, so thank you all for sharing that, and I have a ton of more questions, but I like to kind of hone in on this theme of reclamation, um, and reactivation, which of course, is in the title of this symposium. Um, and I love to-to hear Michael, your thoughts about this specifically. Can you talk more about, um, the relationship between memory and performance specifically embodiment? So how do you reactivate through the body, um, and how are you using performance to interrogate the past? And what exactly are we doing when we revive these lost "works" that, you know, never made it into the canon so to speak.
[(20:06)] Michael: Yeah, um, I would love to speak on that. Um, these are all sort of big question so I'm happy to talk about, um, my work specifically, and then, um, I can talk about a little bit about what we were trying to do or planning the symposium. But before I do that, I briefly just want to add to the list of folks-important folks that Catherine was talking about that sort of got their start as cast members of Shuffle Along, and I'll-- So Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was a very, um, important tap dancer to the history of tap dance. He's kind of the person who we see as, um, the one who bought tap dance up on to his toes, um, from more of a flat-footed buck-buck style- buck dance style. And he was in the cast of Shuffle Along in 1921, the original cast.
So there's a little tap dance history tidbit for you there. Um, folks might know him-might be most familiar with his work, ah, with Shirley Temple, but he also had a quite illustrious career as one of the first big black dance stars in film and stage. Yeah. Again, I can speak to one of so one thing that we want to do is really wanted to make sure that we were engaging with scholars, um, in the field. Folks, whose work looks at theater and performance, um, musical theater specifically, um, and then also, we wanted to look at, ah, community leaders folks who we could turn to-to speak critically and deeply about, um, the other event that the symposium focused on which was, of course, the Tulsa Race Massacre. So yeah, just thinking about what it means for those two events to have happened so close together that same year and what implications those two events have had on just our experience as Americans really, and how that sort of forecasted what it meant to be, um, a black person living in the US since then.
So yeah, some-some scholars that was more where their research, ah, focused on. And then also, I think one thing that I'm proud that we did was that we also were able to engage with like, ah, several artists who-whose artistic expression is also doing this like theory and research work, um, right? And so, I actually was super honored to have the chance to sort of step in not only as a member of the planning committee, but as an artist myself and I presented a piece, ah, which I-which is part of a series of works I do. Um, I've recently started this-started using a looping pedal and a beat pad to ruminate on black music genre. So thinking about classic jazz tunes right from the-from the, I guess we could, you know, AJ was speaking about like how Classics thinks about the theater canon, um, and sort of redresses those absences sort of in the art and the cultural archive of like great theater writers, great black theater writers and-and performers.
So what I try to do with this series of works, um, using the looping pad and this beat pad is look at the-the canon of like the jazz standards, right? And think about are there ways that we can look at specific songs and maybe pick them apart and restructure them. And I like to think about remixing them, and-and then asking questions like what is it like if I take classic jazz tunes and like transpose them, right, from like a jazz- a jazz genre into like more like a house music genre. I'm able to think about like ways that like black queerness maybe exist in the archive, but like inside sort of silent ways, right? So for the symposium what I did is I took, um, a Duke Ellington tune from the 90s-early 1920s. The tune is called Rock and Rhythm, and I use my looping pedal and my tap sounds, and my beat pad to sort of, um, recreate some of the rhythms from that original the Duke Ellington recording, and sort of like played the song myself, um, as a tap dancer in the room, and sort of create this like hip-hop/house music remix of it to sort of like engage in this thinking on, what is it like to like pull something from the archive and like do something different, but then, how can we think about how this cultural artifact by live in the future?
So, yeah, that's-that's sort of one way. I use my work to think about reactivating the past or history or memories or-or items that were created in the past.
[(24:24)] Melena: That's-- Yeah, that's wonderful. I was-I was able to watch your performance actually and it was-it was so amazing. Um, and I hope that our listeners will, you know, go to the website and check it out. So Catherine, I love to hear a little bit more about how you all sought to balance and navigate, um, presenting a complicated though joyful presentation of, ah, black creativity on the stage, on the one hand, and on the other hand, representing an event of unspeakable violence. So how did you all go about navigating this, um, and what does it mean to reactivate connections between these disparate events that were part of the same historical moment, um, but are very far removed from each other in terms of effect and consequence.
[(25:09)] Catherine: Thank you so much for that question. And I think that- I think that effect in consequence being the sites of difference is really important because, well, first of all, I-I wanna situate it sort of in the legacy of-of theater history. It was not my idea to connect it to David Krasner and his book, A Beautiful Pageant, which is about performance in the Harlem Renaissance talks about the Tulsa Race Massacre, what was then called a riot. And that books from the 90s in-in his conversation about-or in his discussion of Shuffle Along, and I was motivated to extend that connection between popular entertainment- black popular entertainment and anti-black racial violence because of the extrajudicial killings of black people that have been so, um, so visible, ah, especially since the advent of smartphones, right? And then particularly since George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin and the murders of Alton Sterling and-and Philando Castile in 2016 made a major impact on the cast of George Wolfe and Savion Glover's, ah, Shuffle Along. And they organized an event called Broadway for Black Lives Matter, and then that transformed into an advocacy organization called Broadway- Broadway Advocacy Coalition.
So I just felt like it was more-it was certainly not my ideas more like I was doing almost like some synthesizing work, you know, to-to extend ideas and actions that other people were-had already done. And I think it's important to say that I'm white, and so I was always working- trying to work carefully on this difficult topic, and but part of it is also sort of like interrogating my own white fandom of Wolfe's production, which I really enjoyed combined with trying to figure out how to take consequential political action when political structures can seem so far beyond impact, you know, like the ability to create change.
So I was working with Saidiya Hartman's, um, the way she talks about redress and scenes of subjection, and she-she says, if we can't, ah, quote like restore or remedy lost, then what can we do? And she asks, what possibilities for relief restitution or recovery does redress provide? And she describes her redress as a limited form of action. So trying to think about that, I-the phrase I've been using a lot is when trying to take any kind of political action or social justice action, I call it important and inadequate. [chuckles] So, um, so part of the inspiration was-was drawing on the political action of the-the cast members of the 2016 Shuffle and David Krasner's, um, earlier scholarship. And thinking also about the fact that it might not be as disparate as we might think on the surface because if you think about what it was like for the performers in 1921 to go on tour, you know, they weren't safe traveling during Jim Crow, right? And how safe do black performers feel now? I mean, that was one of the things that one of the cast members every month said was, she said, you know, "I just feel like I'm black in America and there's a target on my back."
And then also, oddly, in the original Shuffle Along, this farcical mayoral race takes place in an all black town called Jim town. So it's kind of a little mini Utopia and autonomous black space and that's often how Greenwood has been presented, right? The black neighborhood of Tulsa, even though we know that not everyone was wealthy and owning hotels and running printing presses. Um, it is still often discusses like an autonomous black space as Dina post-talked about during the symposium. So those are two-those are two connections that I-that I make between these two seemingly disparate events in addition to the fact that both were neglected by history until this sort of incredible resurgence of attention to Tulsa this year.
[(29:55)] Catherine: Wow. Yeah. I kind of [chuckles] just wanna hold space for that for a second. Yeah, thank you for-for sharing that, um, and for you all doing that really difficult work of bringing these two things together. Um, and thank you also for bringing out that quote from Saidiya Hartman about redress. Our last episode on the podcast was about University reparations, um, and so these themes of redress and what we can do in the face of violence, um, have been on our minds as a podcast. I love to hear more about these featured performances in the symposium so that our listeners can get a sense of how artists engaged with the symposiums themes. So AJ, can you describe maybe one of the-the performances that stuck out to you most? I know that might be difficult, but... [chuckles]
[(30:46)] AJ: Well, I-I-I'm gonna go rogue and just say that I think all of the-in performances were incredible. I can't just single out one because Michael-Michaels performance which was towards the-towards the end of the day, i-it was incredible just just being able to, you know, because many of us have not seen live performance or, you know, seeing like, you know, like, ah, like a-a dance performance. Just watching that- just watching Michael perform was-was, you know, it was-it was, um, it was phenomenal, um, and the work that Michael was doing with, um, like deconstructing, you know, jazz music and with u-u-using technology to do his work to deconstruct and to like re-reimagine this music.
And also, um, Lisa LaTouche-Lisa LaTouche was a member of the, um, the 2016, um, musical which was a look back at their original 1921 Shuffle Along, um, and Lisa LaTouche, there was a short video, um, called Tracks which Lisa LaTouche looked at her own life as, ah, um, Af- as a woman of, ah, you know, she-mixed race woman, ah, who's-who's from Canada and also performers that she didn't know about who-who black performers from Canada, um, and her performance tracks was incredible. And also Masi Asare who is a theater scholar and a composer. Um, Masi did an analysis of the music from Shu- of the songs from Shuffle Along, which was al-also mind-blowing, and looking at how complex the work was that in terms of the composition in-in-in the lyrics and looking at, you know, the songs, um, in the original Shuffle Along which many of us don't know.
So that was also fascinating as well and just showing us that, you know, y-y-you know, um, as Catherine was saying, the original Shuffle Along was-was lost to time, um, and for among other reasons because it was, you know, tied into Minstrelsy performance, which is also controversial but we are-but one of the things that resonated for me, um, in the conference was how black art is, um, dismissed a lot, is-is-is often dismissed and, um, minimalized and my CSR really just showed us how, you know, how complex the music was and that it should not be forgotten, um, from the original 1921 Shuffle Along. And then we also had a poetry reading, um, by-by Tyehimba Jess who was-who was a winning poet, who has a book of poetry called Olio, which also looks at black performance from the late 19th century to early 20th century and the work that he was doing with, um, around these figures from the minstrelsy era, and also just like the typescript of what it-what the poems look like on the page.
So I could go on all day just talking about the [inaudible] and the performances because it really-- I mean, I think this was one of the most dynamic symposia that-that I've ever participated in, not that I'm like, you know, this person that goes to symposia every like, you know, all the time, but just from my perspective, i-it-- I think it really was, and-and-and it just- it's an example of the brilliance in terms of the artistry and also the scholarship, um, as-as well that's being created by, um, that all these amazing black scholars, and artists, and performers.
Many of whom are multidisciplinary who are performers themselves like Michael and also a scholar. So, [chuckles] so I could go on all day.
[(34:19)] Melena: [laughs] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this symposium seems so exceptional in so many ways. Just the dynamic collaboration that obviously went into, I have never heard of anything, you know, this collaborative in terms of bringing artists and performers and community members together. So that's super exciting. I love to hear maybe starting with Michael about how COVID-19 from your perspective has affected how people engage with performance and with academic conferences as both a performer and a scholar yourself, and also more about, you know, how COVID-19 affected the planning process for Reactivating Memory? And what you think some of the things that were gained or maybe lost from the digital format?
[(35:05)] Michael: Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that. It's actually funny because I'm at a conference right now in a hotel. Um, and this is the first time I've traveled to a conference since.
[(35:15)] Melena: Oh, wow.
[(35:16)] Michael: Actually, I was at-I was left out of conference in February of 20... What was that 20... Was that 2020?
[(35:25)] Melena: Ah, right before...
[(35:26)] Michael: [inaudible] Yeah, before the whole world completely flipped upside down. So it's weird bookends on this-on this experience. But in terms of the planning process for this symposium, it was all, I think AJ, correct? We were all online and I was actually in Austin, Texas until I moved to Princeton.
[(35:50)] AJ: Yes.
[(35:51)] Michael: Past August.
[(35:52)] AJ: Yeah.
[(35:52)] Michael: Yeah, so we met completely online and the, ah, the actual symposium happened online obviously, and, you know, it-that has its difficulties, um, but we also had a really great team of folks at the Lewis Center who were really like technology wizards and they made everything happen seamlessly. Um, we worked a lot with them just to plan and make sure and just have backup plans for if, you know, connection was lost or whatever. I don't know. I mean, in COVID-19 has sort of like ruins performance, right, for so long. I mean, for two years at this point really. It's been this this sort of like, process of figuring out how to still present work and how to still like maintain an artistic practice. Um, so, I mean, a lot of pivoting to online which for like rhythm tap dance is very complicated, um, and it meant there's a technology learning curve and I had- I had to purchase my own sort of like mixing board, and do all this other sort of like tech setup.
But I mean, the plus side of that is certainly in terms of this symposium, I think it was amazing that we were able to bring so many people together and I sort of wonder if we would have been able to get all the amazing scholars and community members and artists together in the same sort of virtual space, um, if we were doing symposium in person, right? It would obviously would have been more expensive to fly people to Princeton and-and pay for lodging and food and hotel and all those things. And so, I don't know, I think that's also like a positive of-of the online virtual format. So, yeah.
[(37:34)] Melena: Yeah. Yeah. The accessibility and also the fact that you all were able to archive the symposium in a really important way through the website and, you know, the symposium is gonna have a lasting memory for scholars and performers.
[(37:47)] Michael: All the-all the content can certainly have a life after the actual event on that.
[(37:53)] Melena: Yeah. I'd also love to pivot to the revival of Shuffle Along, um, which I know happened relatively recently. AJ, would you like to speak to what this revival looked like? And I know we touched on the kind of gnarlier parts of-of Shuffle Along as a-as a musical, and maybe I'm curious about how those parts were addressed in this revival. What are the kind of the conversations that were going on when people chose to reignite Shuffle Along?
[(38:21)] AJ: So the-the 2016, um, Shuffle Along, it was called Shuffle Along and it has a long subtitle. It was, um, which I don't have in front of me, but so- I think the idea was initially George Wolfe and-and I know Catherine could speak to this as well. There was the idea to-to revisit the original Shuffle Along, but I think because it the-the source of-the source material is problematic in many different-- I mean, even though, you know, it's like they're, you know, like there's a narrative and then- and then there's this incredible score and songs from the musical, I think a decision was made instead of trying to just revive the musical, the decision was made by the creative team to-to look at the making of, you know, essentially, what-what is the make-what was the making of this musical, and how they, um, how the artists came together and all of the trials that they experience on their way to Broadway in the impact that the-that the musical had on-on musical, on American musical theater, and-and many of the artists who came through the original Shuffle Along and about the legacy, you know, of this musical and the artists who were associated with it.
So-so it was about-the 2016 musical, it was a behind-the-scenes look at the original musical. So there-so there were seeing work and then they were also moments when-when-when the characters, um, like the composer's will do direct address and talk to the audience and--Because it was- I saw so many years ago, I don't remember, um, the whole entire musical in great detail, but just being able to hear the score for the first time, you know, one of the songs that came out of the original Shuffle Along was the song 'I'm wild about Harry,' which, um, which was used, um, by, um, which was used for Harry Truman, um, presidential campaign, and it became-it became a standard, and, um, you know, from that era. And we don't necessarily associated with the musical Shuffle Along but it came from Shuffle Along, and-and the musical, it was controversial in many aspects because one of the reasons was, um, the music close prematurely.
It was nominated for all these Tony's, um, but and yet, it ran for like-it ran for at least three or four months, and then a decision was made by Scott Rudin who's one of the producers to shut the musical down. And Scott Rudin use Audra McDonald as a scapegoat because at the time, Audra-Audra McDonald was expecting her second daughter and she had originally planned to leave the musical and to be replaced by Rhiannon Giddens, um, because Audra was contracted to do another show in Europe, but, ah, the pregnancy changed everything and Audra wanted not leaving the show to perform this other show in Europe. She stay with the show for as long as she could due to her pregnancy then and she left. And then the musical closed abruptly. And there was no cast album that was recorded from the 2016 version.
So it just like there was a big cloud of controversy and-and-- It's so- it was very ironic that, you know, we were in this moment where, you know, Hamilton was on Broadway, there was the play eclipse was playing which is by a black woman playwright and there was a revival
Color Purple, so there was all this excitement and buzz about the fact that there are-there are these shows running at the same time in Broadway, but, um, but Shuffle Along, I think should have definitely had a longer life than it did. And, um, so-so we-so it's- So she's very interesting looking at the irony that Shuffle Along really is Catherine was saying.
It changed what, um, the landscape of American music-musical theater in terms of the sound, um, that was created by Shuffle Along, and, you know, creating this ensemble of-of dancing, um, chorus, which before Shuffle Along, no one did that-so in using a jazz for on Broadway. So Shuffle Along did all these incredible things, but it's lost to history and then you have this- you have this revival or this look back at the original which was also incredible but it- to close early so it was-so it was a lot of irony going on, and of course, you know, we're looking at the politics of capitalism, and, um, the politics of commercial theater. All I can say, and I think I too may have lost my train of thought because I'm not sure if I answered-answered all of your questions.
[(42:51)] Melena: No, that's-that's-that's super helpful. Thanks for giving that context. Michael, can you say more about the reunion? I understand there was a reunions that kicked off the symposium, what was that like?
[(43:03)] Michael: Yes. Um, so we on Thursday night, we were able to secure a grant to bring together some of the, um, creative-creative team and cast members of the 2016 production of Shuffle Along. Um, so that included Savion Glover, who was the choreographer. Um, Daryl Waters who is the music director. I'm forgetting... AJ and Catherine, could you help me remember who else exactly was in that reunion?
[(43:37)] AJ: Amber Iman.
[(43:37)] Michael: Yes, Amber Iman, who is one of the cast members, and Marshall Davis Jr. who was associate choreographer, I believe.
[(43:44)] AJ: Daryl Waters was there too.
[(43:47)] Michael: Mm-hmm. Go ahead. I think you're going to say he's the music- he was music director.
[(43:51)] AJ: Yeah.
[(43:51)] Michael: So I mean it was really amazing for me as a tap dancer to-to just like have the opportunity to be in the sort of Zoom room with these folks and just to get their take on the process of creating the work, um, what it was like to sort of, um, be with George C. Wolfe in the room, um, and taking some of the materials like a lot of the re-retelling the story of how they took a cast trip to the museum to look at some of the materials related to the production. Um, and, um, just like learning sort of the-the background stories of what it was like to that production together was really great. And also I-I think it was just- it was a reunions for the folks before of those folks themselves. So it was-they were just happy to see each other, um, again, which was really great. Um, but yeah, it was-it was an opportunity to sort of hear from some of the creators of the 2016 production, um, what it was like, ah, like the methods they use to make it happen.
[(44:52)] Melena: Awesome. Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. Well, we come to our last question and I'd love to hear more from Michael about how people can, um, kind of think more about these themes and topics in pop culture today. So how are these conversations that were in the symposium kind of resonating with ongoing conversations that you see in contemporary shows and performances, um, and performers like yourself. So what should our listeners be on the lookout for if they're, you know, seeking to engage with content that is involved in these really important conversations about memory and, um, and redress?
[(45:35)] Michael: Well, I think, um, some of-some of the TV or Netflix or streaming programs that came up and we were sort of talking about as we were planning and sort of like talking through the themes were shows like Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, um, sort of these shows that are doing this work and thinking about, I guess, time travel is like a really sort of a way to-to describe, um, what some of these shows are doing, but I think they're certainly a thread of TV writers, and-and, um, also people in the theater who are thinking about, ah, what it means to be of the current moment, but, um, to revisit pastimes. Yeah, I think those are two really great examples and folks have their varying opinions, but I think that would obviously two sort of dynamic examples of programs that work folks are thinking about temporality, and some of these budget themes about like identities, specifically, like black identity. Yeah, I, for some reason, I like drawing a- Oh, I'm trying a blank right now, but I think those are-those are two things that certainly came up in our conversations around this as we were planning to symposium.
[(46:48)] Melena: That- that's super helpful. I was also on the-the Lovecraft Country kinda wave when it first came out recently, um, and I think this also, you know, dovetails with the resurgence of people being interested in the work of Octavia Butler, even though she's been around for a really long time. These kinds of questions about memory and time travel which as you put it may not be-may not be the best word, [chuckles] but thank you for sharing that. Before we-we hop off, AJ and Catherine, I wonder if you will have any examples you want to share.
[(47:19)] Catherine: I don't watch a lot of like prestige programming, let's say [laughs]. I'm more into like, journalism and documentary. So I was really intrigued by the number of documentaries that came out this year about Tulsa, and just also about I was very inspired by the journalist, Deneen Browns' work to recover, you know, the history in Tulsa and to conduct interviews, and I was also-- I just thought that the work of the-the congressional hearing with the last survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre was really incredible and just the idea of adding to the archive and not letting this-this aspect of history be forgotten was incredibly important. And also the work that Deneen Brown did in the National Geographic documentary to tie it to like larger patterns of violence from Red Summer in 1919, it sort of tracing patterns. So that it- so that we can't convince ourselves that it was like an isolated incident by like a few, you know, by a mob of crazed white people, but that this is actually like a discernible pattern across the nation.
[(48:36)] AJ: Yes. So, and one of the panelist at the symposium, Nathan Davis who-who is a-is a dramatic writer-as a dramatist who also teaches at Princeton. Nathan is working on a what they now call a Limited Editions TV show, but, um, but if you're over a certain age, you may call it a miniseries, which is what I refuse to call anything unlimited is [inaudible]. You don't have things are rebranded. Nathan is writing, um, and if you may also be producing, um, a miniseries that's about the Tulsa Race Massacre in the events leading up to it that's being produced, I want to say by, I think Angela Bassett is one of the producers, um, of this project, and I-and I think one of the- one of the major networks. So that's something that's gonna be on the horizon. So I'm very interested to see how the story is told because, you know, was Lovecraft Country and Watchmen, um, like both of those shows refer back to the Tulsa Race Massacre, but it wasn't that-the Tulsa Race Massacre wasn't-wasn't the focus whereas the show that Nathan is working on, that's the sole focus of the show. So I'm very interested in that and into seeing what, you know, what, um, comes of that project and is-and how the story is told.
So the- I think they we're in- we're in an exciting time because there was-they were as Catherine mentioned, in addition to the documentaries, there were also podcast including a podcast that was produced by Kalalea, who was one of the moderators. One of the-she was one of the moderators on one of the panels for the symposium about the Tulsa Race Massacre, and she really-- It was a multi-episode, um, podcast, which she also, um, the podcast also, um, included things that-that-that a lot of people may not have necessarily known about the, ah, Tulsa Race Massacre as well. We're in the moment now where people are- were the work of activists and artists including Sonia Sanchez, we are now seeing the results of their work for the past few decades of getting this-getting this back into the public imagination because it had been suppressed for so long. It were threatened not to talk about it, you know, for fear of being killed or retaliated against. So now-so now we can finally have these conversations and also look at the moment that we're in now where there's this backlash against teaching-teaching American history, you know, teaching about the fatality and you know, the violence of about white supremacy in American history, like there is a-another backlash so we just, in another cycle of the truth coming out, but then, you know, people, um, a movement to suppress this information again to teach a false parallel universe of American history. So, uh-huh.
[(51:25)] Melena: Wow. This has been such a generative conversation for me, you all. I'll ran a link all of the resources in the content that you all shared, um, and I just want to express how grateful we are for you all taking your time to come and speak to us today about Reactivating Memory.
[(51:39)] AJ: Thank you for having us.
[(51:40)] Melena: Thank you.
[(51:40)] Catherine: You're welcome. Thank you.
[(51:44)] Michael: Thank you.
[(51:49)] Melena: Now onto our closing segment, 'See, hear, do', where we point you to some additional resources to continue exploring topics from today's conversation. Today, 'See, hear, do', walks you through an amazing set of learning modules designed by Reactivating Memory organizers. Big shout-out to Marissa Michaels, class of 2020 who helped put all of these together. You can find the modules at arts.princeton.edu/reactivating-memory-modules, or just check out the links in our show notes. You can also experience the entire Reactivating Memory Symposium for yourself through a video replay hosted by Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts. The learning modules themselves provide ample background on both Tulsa and Shuffle Along for those looking to dive deeper. They also explore a number of the symposiums themes from archives to blackface, and questions about how to draw connections between the past and the present.
One particularly interesting section, spotlights' journalistic disparities, and coverage of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It also documents how media outlets like the Kansas City Star and LA Times have recently apologized for their role in amplifying systemic racism because it includes all of the original articles, this would make a great resource for the classroom. A blog post by Arlene Balkansky at the Library of Congress does a great job analyzing the coverage of Tulsa in 1921, and you can find the link to it in our show notes.
If podcast is what you seek? Look, no further than NPRS blind spot, Tulsa Burning, produced and hosted by Reactivating Memory panelists, Kalalea.
[(53:27)]Catherine: If you want to see Chief Amashan's family home, you need to use your imagination.
[(53:33)] Michael: Everything is destroyed. There's nothing. If you look at any pictures, like I've-I've gotten magnifying glasses just to see Amashans. I just want to see something to spring. Just-I just need-- This is something very unsettling about knowing that you had family who lived on Greenwood and you just want to be able to say it was right there and you can't-you can't distinguish anything.
[(53:58)] Melena: Listeners interested in Shuffle Along should check out historian, Caseen Gaines footnotes, the black artists who rewrote the rules of the great white way published this past summer by sourcebooks. You can hear Gaines break down some of the themes we heard here today on WABE's City Light's podcast.
[(54:16)] Caseen Gaines: It seems sort of contradictory, but Noble Sissle, one of the creators of the show says that perhaps, because the black community was experiencing so much pain, not only in Tulsa, but throughout the United States, that's actually why Shuffle Along was so successful because people needed escapism and they provided an opportunity for black joy to be celebrated on stage.
[(54:43)] Melena: If you're looking for a taste of Shuffle Along's music, and wanna learn how the Meta Musical revival presented, check out this performance from the 2016 Tony Awards.
[(55:13)] Melena: Finally, those of you interested in supporting performing arts and service of social justice should donate to the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, founded by cast members of the Shuffle Along Revival in 2016. The coalition sponsors fellowships and artists workshops as well as community centered events. You can learn more at bewayadvocacycoalition.org.
[(55:44)] Melena: Thanks for listening. My name is Melena Laudig, a PhD student in Religion in African-American studies at Princeton. Behind the scenes, we have Mike McGovern, a PhD candidate in history of Science in African-American studies, helping out as associate producer. Our executive producer is Ellie O'Joe, the department of African-American studies computing support specialist. Artistic and creative support was provided by Anthony K. Gibbons, Jr., our communications and media specialists.
Also, a special thanks to the chair of our department, Eddie Glaude. Our department manager, April Peters. Our events coordinator, Dion Worthy. And our office assistant, Jana Johnson. Finally, we wanna give a special shout-out to Ebun Ajayi who hosted the first four episodes of the season with me. Good luck in all of your future endeavors, Ebun. We were so lucky to have you. Thanks for tuning in.