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Blackbirds of Broadway:

What's It About?

Blackbirds of Broadway is a musical revue celebrating the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and 1930's. It takes its name from the famous "Blackbird" revues presented around the world by producer Lew Leslie. This is where performers like Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and (Richmond native) Bill "Bojangles" Robinson found international acclaim performing to the music of composers like Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake and Fats Waller.

I've heard it said that black music is the most important art form of the 20th century. Almost everywhere on earth where Africans have been, they have profoundly influenced the local music. Jazz, rock, blues, and latin beats are all the result of this very direct influence. In America, most current popular styles are direct descendents of the music made by generations of African slaves and their descendents. Yes, even country music has black roots--and that's not all. Classical works like Dvorak's New World Symphony and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess indicate just how seriously this music was taken in many musical quarters even at the turn of the century. There is also a strong influence felt in dance, literature, poetry and the visual arts.

As jazz began to develop in the 1920's, most of its innovators and top performers were blacks, who lived and worked in a world of intense racism and discrimination. Black performers frequently performed for all-white audiences, even in Harlem's legendary Cotton Club, where the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway bands initially made their mark. Black artists were also subject to rough treatment on the road. Many towns imposed black-only curfews and travelling musicians often had to be housed in private homes because all the town's hotels were for whites only. Charlie Parker was once jailed in Martinsville, VA for a curfew violation. Gatherings were subject to harassment from the authorities. Note how many old rhythm & blues tunes mention a police raid on a party. Even in a liberal city like New York, nightclub performers could not work without a 'cabaret card' issued by the police.

Harlem was a special place, though. It was a place where blacks who prospered with decent jobs or businesses of their own were forced to live because of racist housing restrictions. Harlem was a unique place where black intellectuals and artists found themselves, along with people who could appreciate and patronize the literature and entertainment that they created. The synergy of all these people being together produced the explosion of creativity that is known as the Harlem Renaissance.

(Richmond students: When you hear of restoration efforts in Jackson Ward, or see the Maggie Walker house, you should understand that this was a similar area which was known as 'The Harlem of the South.' Restoring and revitalizing this area is a matter of great local pride.)

For black artists, the 20's and 30's were a time of great progress and innovation, but also intense frustration. Although angry because of their condition of second-class citizenship under Jim Crow laws, many of these artists were entertainers who had to supress and mask this anger in order to have the patronage of white audiences. At the same time, most black bands suffered severe financial hardships and never did see the popularity or success of white bands that copied their styles.  A whole generation of 'race' movies and records were sold only to the black community.

What Blackbirds tries to address: Many white people have viewed great innovators like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, or Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson simply as entertainers and don't realize what great creative forces they really were. Many black people view these same artists with scorn because of the emotional mask that they wore around white people, and the fact that they didn't always speak out about the injustices that they routinely suffered. Blackbirds tries to honor these people as artists and innovators, who felt all of the pain and anger that went along with injustice. They were simply professional performers who were trying to survive in a world where the deck was stacked against them.

This show presents a hip, high-energy salute to these great performers and composers with the poetry of Langston Hughes binding it all together and providing some added insights.

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