When writer Caseen Gaines attended a performance of the 2016 Broadway docu-musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, he was blown away by both the production, and the raw emotions exhibited by the company of performers.
"My interest in Shuffle Along’s mysterious disappearance from the annals of history had been piqued, and that curiosity only increased once the final curtain fell. As patrons made their way back onto West 44th Street, inside it felt more like a funeral home. Only the most unwanted merchandise remained at the kiosks, and at a post-show talkback, several cast members expressed disappointment and frustration that the musical was coming to a premature end."
Shuffle Along...opened in 2016 under the helm of director George C. Wolfe, with a couple of goals: to elevate the importance of the unfortunately forgotten original production as a piece of theatre history, and to preserve the story for future generations. When producer Scott Rudin opted to suddenly close the show without recording a cast album, it was seen by many as a punitive action against star Audra McDonald, who had become pregnant and requested maternity leave from the production.
Numerous lawsuits followed, and the impact of the musical's creation and the closure reverberated through the company, and Broadway at large, leading to the founding of the Tony-winning Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC).
In this exclusive excerpt, read how the synchronicity of the show's closure and the murder of Philando Castile led to the founding of BAC, and how the impact of that revival has changed the American theatrical landscape much in the same way as the original 1921 production.
"Much like its distant relative from 1921, one might argue that Wolfe’s Shuffle Along failed to leave a lasting impression on our collective consciousness. However, there are other ways to appraise a legacy. On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile, a Black man, was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter were in the car with him. The incident sent reverberations throughout the nation, in large part because Reynolds’s Facebook livestream of the fatal encounter went viral. It was the latest in a string of nationwide events where law enforcement killed Black men first, then developed answers to tough questions later.
In the final weeks of Shuffle Along’s 2016 Broadway run, several members of the cast started to wonder if they were doing enough to speak to the issues that were plaguing the Black community. “I was onstage performing in front of a sea of white people that had no idea this entire cast was hurting so deeply,” Adrienne Warren said. “I remember looking out onto our stage and our ensemble was performing some incredible number, and they had tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces.”
On August 1, just a week after the 2016 Shuffle Along closed, several cast members organized an event called Broadway for Black Lives Matter, a forum where artists, activists, and members of the New York Police Department could discuss issues of racial justice and collectively think through ways to better build community. Cast members Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Joshua Henry performed for more than one thousand people who attended. The successful event led several cast members to cofound the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.
“We’re often asked to hold the red bucket [for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS] or get dressed and raise money at a gala, but when it comes to police brutality and racism and mass incarceration, there’s something beyond raising money that needs to happen,” Britton Smith, one of the show’s swings, said. “We decided it was important for the arts to finally meet law and policies, so we built this relationship with the folks at Columbia Law School and since 2016 we’ve really deepened our practices of how art and law and policy work for the people.” On September 26, 2021, less than two weeks after Broadway reopened from its year and-a-half long shutdown, the organization was awarded a Special Tony Award for its work to ensure the arts industry takes a more impactful role in combating racism.
Once Broadway reopened in September 2021, the lasting impact of America’s “racial reckoning” after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were both killed by police officers, and the efforts of organizations like Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Black Theatre United, a coalition cofounded by Shuffle Along alum Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, could already be felt. The latter advocacy group developed “A New Deal for Broadway,” a pledge that would increase representation for Black artists. For example, directors and writers who signed vowed to “never assemble an all-white creative team on a production again, regardless of the subject matter of the show.” Theater owners agreed to name at least one of their theaters after a Black artist. In March 2022, The Shubert Organization announced that they were renaming the Cort Theatre, where auditions were held for the 1921 Shuffle Along, after James Earl Jones. Ultimately, “A New Deal for Broadway” garnered widespread support and was signed by owners and operators for nearly every Broadway theater, as well as the Broadway League, a trade organization representing producers, and the Actors’ Equity Association labor union, which represents performers and stage managers.
It wasn’t enough that professional theater was back—artists of color wanted to ensure that upon its return, Broadway also was Black.
Of course, it would be unfair to disproportionally credit Wolfe’s Shuffle Along and its alumni for what seems to be the beginning of a potentially seismic shift; this was the result of several different coordinated industry-wide efforts to make Manhattan a more welcoming space for Black artists and patrons. For example, in 2020, over twenty past and present cast members from The Book of Mormon pushed for the show’s satirical elements to be sharpened so audiences were clear that Africans weren’t simply the butt of the joke, and for tweaks to be made to narrative elements that, now that that lens was more fine tuned in a post-George Floyd world, played as overtly-racist. The show’s writers, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Robert Lopez, made a number of edits over a two-week period with one clear goal: “Make sure everything works and everybody feels good.” The end result was a show that not only centered on paternalistic Mormon missionaries from America, but also the Ugandan people they attempted to “civilize,” who had their own culture before the white men arrived to “save them.”
A hundred years after Shuffle Along first challenged social norms on Broadway, it seemed the future of the great white way had become brighter—and darker—than ever before. This is cause for celebration, but perhaps only cautiously. After all, New York had seen a Black renaissance on Broadway a century ago, and many of those productions, including the one that started it all, have become a distant memory, even if its impact was long-lasting.
“Theatre is fragile that way. Theatre is incredibly fragile. Unless the right people write about it, it becomes somebody’s distant memory.”
But as Lin-Manuel Miranda memorably states in Hamilton, “you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” What, then, of the original Shuffle Along? Will the time ever be right to tell that story again onstage, even if, as August Wilson suggests, those who do so may be derided for it? Perhaps not. However, it’s worth considering why that is and what the repercussions are for Black folks who grew up never knowing that, in 1921, one of the biggest sensations of the year was a show where everyone in the cast looked like someone in their family and that the foundational theatrical texts extend beyond the works of George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin.
Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles were there too, each with several Broadway productions under their belts, and their works, contributions, and lives matter even though, as Laurence Maslon put it in the Washington Post in 2021, it seems the fate of the show’s creators “to be marginalized even when celebrated.” Though lingering concerns about reintroducing Shuffle Along to a modern audience are well intentioned, American history is a tapestry of imperfect icons and flawed works. While some are permitted to repeatedly press their feet into the wet cement of time, others are papered over, shuffled off to the sidelines, and relegated to little more than historical footnotes.
In the meantime, those who know the impact of this groundbreaking musical share responsibility in telling its story, and celebrating its creators, again and again and again."
When Broadway Was Black is now available from all major book retailers.