A major stimulus to the advent of the Harlem Renaissance was the all Black production of the musical, Shuffle Along. Its debut performance took place on May 23, 1921 in the Cort Theater, located on 63rd Street right outside Harlem. Flourney Miller and Aubrey Lyles, both who got their start performing at Fisk University, teamed with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, two celebrated musicians, to write and perform what would become one of the most successful musicals of the 1920’s.
Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography that it was the magnetism of the show that had him coming back night after night, and led to his decision to enroll in Columbia University so he would be closer to the theater and Harlem. Long after the vibrant cultural activities that dominated Harlem in the 1920’s had waned, Langston still had fond memories of that musical. He wrote in the Big Sea, “But I remember Shuffle Along…because it gave just the proper push—a pre-Charleston kick—,”to what would become the most famous literary period in the life of African Americans.
Shuffle Along became synonymous with the excitement, vibrancy, and exceptional creativity that represented Harlem. The famous cultural historian, Nathan Huggins, wrote of the musical that, “It was like Harlem itself, infectious, it made everyone want to forget his troubles and do it, like the chorus dancers in the clubs.” Shuffle Along opened the era of the Black experience like none other in history. It was, according to Langston, “A period when Charleston preachers opened up shouting churches as sideshows for white tourists. It was when at least one charming colored chorus girl, amber enough to pass for a Latin American, was living in a pent house with all her bills paid by a gentleman whose name was banker’s magic on Wall Street. It was a period of cabarets and extravagant parties given by A’Lelia Walker, the socialite daughter of Madam C. J. Walker. A’Lelia, a grand and statuesque woman was according to Langston, ‘the joy-goddess of Harlem.’ It was a period when every season there was at least one hit Broadway play acted by a Negro cast. And when books by Negro authors were being published with much greater frequency and much more publicity than ever before or since in history…it was the period when the Negro was in vogue.”
Shuffle Along launched the careers of many great entertainers. The great Florence Mills got her start as a singer and dancer in one of the lead roles. The flamboyant Josephine Baker started out as a dresser then earned a place in the chorus line. Paul Robeson also sang with the Four Harmony Kings Quartet in the show, before launching his successful international career as an actor and singer.
Shuffle Along was only one of a myriad of cultural firsts for Black America that emanated in Harlem and spread throughout the entire country and still has a tremendous impact on musicians, artists and writers in the contemporary Black artistic world.