What does Louise tell us about herself in what appears to be the only existing professional photo of her? What clues are there in her attire, her make-up, her facial expression, her stance, or in her inscription to dancer Ludie Jones?
The first time I wrote about Louise, in 2005, for the Philadelphia Folklore Project’s journal Works In Progress, I titled the piece “Imagining Louise.” I tried imagining her from the snippets of stories and comments harvested from people who knew her during her relatively brief performance career, and from sparse and speculative references to her in books on tap and jazz dance. I’m still imagining her more than 25 years later, as I piece together remembrances from Louise’s relatives and comb archives for representations of the spaces and social environments where she grew up and made unconventional choices for her life.
For quite some time I’ve had an image of Louise as she appeared in a “lobby” photograph that she autographed in 1934. But only recently did it occur to me to take a microscope to that photograph to see what she might have been telling us. I felt encouraged in this endeavor when I heard a conversation between cultural writers Dawnie Walton and Hanif Abdurraqib during the 2021 Schomburg Center Literary Festival. Abdurraqib (whose book Little Devil in America I can’t get enough of) said, “there is something about a still photo that allowed me an opportunity to bring a scene to life … something about my looking at a still photo where my inclination is … to describe the possibility of the photo… .” He went on to say how he regretted omitting from Little Devil an essay on Black facial expressions, and recounted his reaction to WNBA star Candace Parker’s facial rejoinder to recent televised comments by Shaquille O’Neal: Abdurraqib said, “She’s got a paragraph in that look.”
So what paragraphs, or sentences, or phrases are there in this photo of Louise, which you’ve already seen a few times if you’ve been following my blogs? There’s athleticism and muscularity in her stance—almost like a basketball player blocking an opponent. We can sense the strength and limberness of her legs beneath her white pants. Her arms appear relaxed despite the assertiveness—the incipient prowl—of her posture. Her arms and hands seem to float. Her attire, especially her flat tap shoes, says, “Don’t mistake me for a chorus dancer—I’m here to lay down some rhythms and cover some stage.” Contrast that with the sparkle of her top and the coquettish angle of her hat. Her make-up is full-on vamp—arched brows, cat eyes, deep-colored lipstick. Her gaze fixes us. Her smile is mischievous—almost distant.
I am intrigued by the inscription, made to Ludie Jones (1916-2018), who was a chorus dancer in the London Blackbirds 1934 production. (See below photo of the Blackbirds chorus line, with Jones on the back row, right side.) The part that we can make out says: “To Luddie (sic) You have all my wishes of success—some day you will be a specialty…. From Lou, 1934 Black Birds, London Eng.” (Jones was just out of high school in New York when she began touring England with the chorus line of Blackbirds. Upon returning to the U.S. she formed a dancing trio, The Lang Sisters, which lasted until about 1941. She followed that up with another specialty act called The Three Poms, that opened for the Cab Calloway Band, and did shows for the troops in Okinawa and the Philippines during WWII.) Louise’s nephew Elwood (now in his late 90s) told me that he didn’t think that Louise attended high school—that she was launching her performance career instead. She also had her first child, a daughter, when she was 17. It’s worth noting that someone who didn’t attend high school—let alone finish high school— would pen an inscription that conveys such ease, graciousness and well-wishing. The handwriting has expressive fluidity. I imagine that Louise’s encouragement might have helped spur Jones to give up the chorus line to form acts that gave her more visibility and creative range. That would be consistent with the belief that it was Louise who prompted Baby Laurence (born Laurence Donald Jackson, 1921-1974) to give up a singing career to focus on tap dancing, where he became virtuosic and highly influential to the form.
It’s interesting to contrast Louise’s photo with that of the Blackbirds chorus line (see below). The appeal of a chorus line is in its unison and uniformity, qualities that are foreign to Louise’s self-presentation. For some cultural critics, the rise of chorus lines was a metaphor for the rise of industrialization and militarism. Jayna Brown, in Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and The Shaping of The Modern, makes the case this way:
As the century progressed, the ubiquitous presence of geometrically ordered female bodies—on stage, in night clubs and cabarets, and on screen—would seem to bear out the bodily disciplines exacted in the industrial school, on the factory floor and in the military camp had found its aesthetic correlation. The institution hit a peak around 1915, with the eighth of the Ziegfeld Follies revues its most successful, but it was after World War I that the chorus line system developed as a quintessential formation and the numbers of women on stage increased. Hundreds of women danced in perfect unison, forming a corridor of mirrors, the poetic reflection of the avenues of the city, the factory assembly lines, and the military maneuvers of marching soldiers.
The rise of chorus lines has also been interpreted as a symbol of modern working women—women working as shop girls, clerks and secretaries, jobs that were not open to African American women. Jayna Brown says:
African American women were barred by the custom of the country from most white-collar jobs, just as they were barred from the white stage. … Working as domestics and as stage performers, and training white choruses, their presence was central to the meanings of urban culture, despite their erasure from the critical record.
Thus, even within the regimentation of the chorus line, African American women were defying racial and gender barriers. As Saidiya Hartman put it in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, “The swivel and circle of hips, the nasty elegance of the Shimmy, the changing-same of collective movement, the repetition, the improvisation of escape and subsistence, bodied forth the shared dream of scrub maids, elevator boys, whores, sweet men, stevedores, chorus girls, and tenement dwellers—not to be fixed at the bottom, not to be walled in the ghetto. Each dance was a rehearsal for escape.” Do I see a hint of that consciousness in Ludie Jones’ sideways glance from the back row of the Blackbirds chorus line?
Returning to Louise’s photograph, I asked two colleagues to give their impressions of the photo. Andrea Walls, a Chronicling Resistance Fellow, poet, photographer, and digital artist, responded:
I’m drawn to it for a number of reasons, including the fact that it must be quite a rare find. I love the vintage, noir aesthetic, which adds to the haunted feeling I perceive in the photograph. There is something about the way her body is reaching or being pulled to extremity at an odd angle to “perform” for the camera–something not quite natural.
The pose seems more athletic than graceful and the gaze is strong and direct with a bit of mischief in the expression. I imagine a bawdy or smoker’s laugh goes with a smile like that. I see the faded star and handwritten text as a celestial portal through which to “fly,” perhaps between fame or notoriety and obscurity.
Carol Tompkins, Louise’s granddaughter, grew up around Louise, and lived with her for a short time. However, Louise’s performance career is as shrouded for Carol as it is for the rest of us. Carol’s reply to my request said: “It looks like Louise is very happy in completing this gig. And she wants to wish her friend success as well …. she wants to wish her friend the same success as she already has…it seems as if she enjoyed giving her this photo as well…from the joy coming from her words….”
When Chronicling Resistance project director Mariam Williams read my draft of this blog, she wrote back,
I have seen this photo many times and thought, “How playful she looks!” I’ve also wondered, each time, what was behind her smile. She’s a star posed within a star (or a star-shaped filter over the spotlight), and yet, she’s bursting out of that star, like even stardom couldn’t contain her. I wonder what the photo shoot was like, what the photographer saw the moment he/she/they snapped the photo, who chose that photo as “the one,” and if that really was “the one.” Maybe it wasn’t, and she gave it [to] Ludie to say, “Nothing is going to hold us back.” And I wonder if I’m putting too much of the context of resistance into my reading/hearing of this photograph.
I resonate with Andrea’s observation about the liminal quality of Louise’s presence in the photo—the sense that Louise straddles two or more worlds. And like Mariam, I ask myself whether I’m reading too much into the photo as I try to substantiate my thesis that Louise is representative of Black women of her era who used the stage to resist being defined by a posse of isms. Rather than offer ready answers, the Louise of this photo makes us wrestle with the questions, ambiguities and contrasts. She remains elusive, even in a lobby photograph.