On This Day: “Shuffle Along,” the first major African American hit musical, premieres on Broadway

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.

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