Lewis Center for the Arts Symposium “Reactivates Memory”
CENTENNIAL OF TWO EVENTS: The landmark 1921 musical “Shuffle Along” and the horrific murder of hundreds of Black residents in Tulsa, Okla., occurred just a week apart. The two events are the focus of an upcoming virtual webinar. (Photo courtesy of the Eubie Blake Collection of the Maryland Historical Society)
By Anne Levin
The killing of hundreds of Black citizens in Tulsa, Okla., and the opening of a groundbreaking musical might seem like unlikely partners for a two-day seminar. But “REACTIVATING MEMORY: Shuffle Along and the Tulsa Race Massacre: A Centennial Symposium” links the two events together in a logical way.
On September 9 and 10, The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Music Theater at Princeton University has planned panels, a keynote, and performances to mark the centennial of the burning of Greenwood, a vibrant Black neighborhood in Tulsa, considered one of the nation’s worst incidents of racial violence in American history. Just a week prior on May 23, 1921, Shuffle Along had debuted in New York, introducing a syncopated jazz score and chorus girls to the American musical and launching the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, among others.
Exploring the two events together made sense. The team behind the symposium includes Stacy Wolf, professor of theater and American studies and director of the Program in Music and Theater at the University; and Catherine M. Young, lecturer in writing; as well as tap dance artist and 2021-23 Princeton Arts Fellow Michael J. Love; and members of CLASSIX, a collective of artists and scholars dedicated to expanding classical theater through the exploration of dramatic works by Black writers.
“We started working on this a year ago,” said Wolf. “It was the brainchild of Catherine Young, who is a scholar of vaudeville. It was her idea to commemorate these two events that happened a month apart.”
Members of CLASSIX are familiar to Princeton from an event they produced last year, “A Past Becomes a Heritage,” about the Negro Units of the Federal Theater Project. “They were already in Princeton’s ecosystem,” said Wolf. “Even though they are primarily theater artists, they are intellectuals and historians. They know as much about Tulsa as they do about Shuffle Along.”
The musical, which was created by an all-Black artistic team including Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall and ran for 504 performances. While it was considered a theatrical landmark, notable for its complicated tap dancing and its focus around a story rather than just a series of numbers, the musical was largely forgotten.
Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, a musical about the original, was produced on Broadway in 2016. On September 9, members of the cast and creative team will take part in a panel discussion moderated by Michael J. Love.
Written and directed by George C. Wolfe, with choreography by Savion Glover, and Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell leading the cast, the show folded barely three months into its run.
“A lot of us believe it closed prematurely,” said Wolf. “Scott Rudin (who resigned from the Broadway League last April after charges of abusive behavior) was one of the producers. There were weak ticket sales. Audra McDonald was pregnant. But we don’t really know the reason.”
Following World War I, the Greenwood District of Tulsa was known nationally for its affluent Black community, sometimes referred to as “Black Wall Street.” Over 18 hours from May 31-June 1, a white mob attacked residents, homes, and businesses, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless. News reports at the time were mostly squelched.
Centennial events related to the massacre have included documentaries, a congressional hearing with survivor testimony, exhibits, publications, a new lawsuit against the city of Tulsa, anti-police brutality activism, special university and high school curricula development, and a backlash against such curricula.
“For some people, the Tulsa race massacre was news. For others, it was never news,” said Wolf. “We’re thinking here about the partiality of history — how much or how little people know depending on where they were situated.”
The creative team behind the upcoming Zoom event, which is free and open to the public, believe that the massacre and the musical make natural partners. “One thing took place in Tulsa, and was a trauma for a large part of the population,” Wolf said. “The other, in New York, was a big celebration. It was enormously important, but it didn’t run as long as it might have.”
Advanced registration is required for both events. Visit arts.princeton.edu/reactivating-memory.