“Spidering” is how Nadine George-Grave describes the dynamics of her research approach—“some lines of the webs…will break through other lines of wisdom and memory; some will be dead ends….” Since Louise didn’t leave us much to know her by, I’ve had to “spider” my way around the people and places she associated with. Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revues, all-Black stage productions in which Louise was a featured performer, is a fertile place to crawl.
Lew Leslie (1888-1963) was an enterprising white impresario who produced all-Black variety shows that featured the best-known Black entertainers of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. His shows traveled the United States, as well as to London and Paris. He mounted his first Blackbirds revue in 1926, to be followed by editions in 1928, 1930, 1933, 1934/35, 1936 and 1939. (I recently found and purchased vintage playbills from Blackbirds productions in New York and London.) Songs were composed especially for his revues, such as this one, Tappin’ The Barrel, recorded by Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarten.
(This number was performed by the “Blackbirds Beauty Chorus and the World’s Greatest Female Tap Dancer, Louise Madison”)
Among the Black artists who were, or later became, well-known who appeared in Leslie’s shows over the years were Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Adelaide Hall, Ethel Waters, the Nicholas Brothers, Valaida Snow, Peg Leg Bates, and Lena Horne. Leslie brooked no doubts about whose brainchild Blackbirds was: his playbills read “Entire Production Conceived and Staged by Lew Leslie” (emphasis in original), and gave him whole or partial credit for the orchestra and choir arrangements.
A cheeky review of the Blackbirds production at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater appeared in the June 2, 1934 edition of The New York Age, a weekly “leading Negro newspaper” that was published from 1887 to 1953. It states: “No filth! No burnt cork hokum! No suggestive gags. No vulgar contortions! so the Lafayette has a good show this week. But, of course, it is an ‘imported’ show—a show that has been groomed and played to white audiences—and so it is different.” The column goes on to list and critique the acts “in order of merit.” In its conclusion, the writer notes that four performers, including Louise Madison, “all do their bit to hold the show together and make it click, and “congratulate(s) Lew Leslie on his perseverance and wish(es) him luck.” The initials “V.E.J.” appear at the end of the review.
A column written, evidently, by the same critic, Vere E. Johns, appears on the same page as the Blackbirds critique and offers some enlightening context for the comments at the beginning of the review. The column is headed “Away With Blackface Comedy,” and castigates the Apollo Theater for a recent show presenting entertainers who, “with faces made up to look like monkeys, pulled the best line of comedy they knew and I admit it was clean but it spelled ignorance and degradation and, allowing for its stale gags, could convey nothing to the minds of a white audience but that the Negro as a whole is an illiterate child. They are the perfect example of what the white people of yesterday termed a ‘coon’.” Johns went further, charging that “in the past five years our ‘blackface’ comics have steadily become worse and have apparently had to resort to filthy and vulgar gags to get laughs.” The column makes a plea for Harlem theaters—the Lafayette, Apollo, and Harlem Opera House—to retire “blackface,” arguing that “it is not welcome on Broadway and such sketches would not be permitted there. Is Harlem entitled to less consideration?”
Johns’ views toward blackface comedy were far from universal. The issue was entangled in attitudes toward the “place” and artistic agency of black entertainers. Eubie Blake felt the backlash when he dared to assume that his and Noble Sissle’s success with Shuffle Along assured that he could make whatever kind of show he wished. He said, “we were wrong….people who went to a colored show—most people, not all people—expected only fast dancing and Negroid humor, and when they got something else they put it down.” White critics accused Black producers of trying to imitate white Broadway musicals, and suggested that they stick to the “regular darkie business.” The irony is that white entertainers and producers were constantly buying, borrowing, and stealing material from Black performers. One of many cases in point is Clarence “Buddy” Bradley (1905-1972), a tap /jazz dancer originally from Harrisburg PA, who, in the ’20s started tailoring routines for white dancers, including Broadway stars such as Adele Astair (Fred’s sister), Ruby Keeler, and Eleanor Powell. He had a steady stream of clients at a studio near Time Square, operated by an enterprising Black businessman, where “Bradley worked twelve-hour days, shuttling back and forth between rooms,” rarely pulling down no less than a grand per week, according to dance writer Brian Siebert in What The Eye Hears. Bradley claimed that in the late ’20s there wasn’t a Broadway show that didn’t have at least one of his routines, but you wouldn’t find his name in the playbill. Indeed, he did the choreography for the entire production of Greenwich Village Follies of 1928, even though Busby Berkeley got the choreographic credit. Beginning in the 1930s Bradley found plenty of opportunities, as well as acknowledgment, in British stage and film productions. He also ran a successful dance studio in the Soho section of London. He stayed in London for 38 years before returning to New York.
From V.E.J’s 1934 review of Blackbirds, one would infer that Leslie abstained from the more extreme racist tropes. In fact, Leslie was not too evolved to put “blackface” in his productions, as this link to a photo of a comic sketch from the London production of Blackbirds 1934 demonstrates.
In his 2015 history of tap dancing, NYT dance critic Brain Seibert cites Blackbirds revues as an example of the formula for shows that “moved in historical progression from scenes set in Jungle Land and Dixie to scenes set in a Harlem gin mill; a show that had blackface comics cowering in graveyards and cheating at poker; a show bursting with jazz….” Leslie’s shows included vignettes with titles like “Down South,” “Jo Jo, the Cannibal Kid,” and “Aunt Jemima And Cream Of Wheat.” Blackbirds’ promotional materials used blatant racial stereotypes, as is evident from the following playbill cover and promotional postcard.
Despite being a platform for racist content and imagery, Blackbirds revues were also a vehicle for artists who fought against common perceptions of Black people and African-rooted culture. The playbill for Blackbirds 1936 (which occurred after Louise left the production) lists a musical segment titled “Negro Cavalcade” that was prefaced by the following statement by poet and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson (who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing”):
In 1619 a Dutch vessel landed twenty African natives at Jamestown, Virginia. They were quickly bought by colonial settlers. This was. The beginning of the African slave trade in the American Colonies. To supply this trade Africa was ravaged by millions of men, women and children. As many as survived the passage were immediately thrown into slavery. These people came from various localities in Africa. They did not speak all the same language. Here they were, suddenly cut off from the moorings of their native culture, scattered without regard to their old tribal relations, having to adjust themselves to a completely alien civilization, having to learn a strange language, and moreover, held under an increasingly harsh system of slavery; yet it was from these people this mass of noble music sprang; this music which is America’s only folk music, and, up to this time, the finest distinctive contribution she has to offer the world.
How do we reconcile these two faces of Blackbirds? Does it represent an evolution of Lew Leslie’s perspective on race and Black culture—the meat and potatoes of his enterprise? Does it suggest a shrewd marketing strategy to make the Blackbirds brand appeal to a range of racial attitudes among audiences on both sides of the Atlantic? How did Louise and other Blackbirds artists perceive these seemingly contradictory messages? Those might be questions for speculation in another blog.
When I began writing this blog post, I was headed someplace very different from where I’m ending up. I thought I’d look at the lives and careers of the women who were Louise’s colleagues in the Blackbirds 1934 production—Valaida Snow, who was dubbed “Little Louis” and “Queen of the Trumpet”; Edith Wilson, a blues singer who later became the persona of Aunt Jemima for the Quaker Oats Company; Bessie Dudley, who performed with Earl “Snakehips” Tucker; pianist De Lloyd McKaye, among others. (Follow this link to a September 1934 newspaper photo of Valaida and De Lloyd McKaye for the London production of Blackbirds https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/page/cf32aa704b2a44ffb1353643dedcc05c ). How did their journeys reflect the “wayward lives, beautiful experiments” framing I’ve constructed for my consideration of Louise’s life? I started looking at playbills and newspaper notices that referenced these women, and took a temporary detour when I reread the newspaper review of Blackbirds 1934 that I found on my first visit to the Special Collections Department at Temple Library more than a year ago. On this rereading I noticed for the first time the column about blackface comedy and got seduced by the question of how a stage production defined by racist stereotypes works as a site of resistance for Black women. The spider loves tough questions. Fortunately, so do I.
Copyright 2021 by Germaine Ingram. All rights reserved.