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Cultural influences on Broadway are vast, since this dynamic art form never ceases to evolve. One of the most profound cultural impacts on all things theatre, however, was the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s. On The Stage explores what, exactly, the Harlem Renaissance was, and how it deeply influenced the world of performing arts.
The Harlem Reinaissance goes by many names – the New Negro Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, the Negro Renaissance, or the Jazz Age. No matter the name, this period of time in the United States is defined as an intellectual, cultural, and artist revival of Black music, theatre, fashion, scholarship, and art.
Alongside artistic and intellectual advances, the Renaissance also provided a renewed enthusiasm in civil rights, as the ‘Great Migration’ occurred during this time; large numbers of Black workers were fleeing the racist conditions of the Jim Crow deep south. And where did many of them land? The Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, New York.
While Harlem was the epicenter of this revival, Black creatives and scholars around the world felt its pull. All in all, the Harlem Renaissance is considered a rebirth of the African American arts scene.
With so many creatives living in close quarters during a prosperous time in U.S. history, the Renaissance brought far more Black creatives into the public sphere. Black actors, playwrights, authors, and musicians were sharing their works more publicly, engaging the creative world with thought-provoking, innovative creations.
Some believe Three Plays for a Negro Theatre kicked off this burgeoning movement. The work, which highlighted, then denounced Black stereotypes, showcased actors portraying a wide breadth of emotions in complex, nuanced roles. The show was often performed around Harlem at popular locations including the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre.
Perhaps the greatest contributor to the Harlem Renaissance was writer and poet Langston Hughes, who influenced theater in major ways. He wrote a variety of plays, including Mulatto, Troubled Island, and The Sun Do Move; as well as musicals including Tambourines to Glory and Simply Heavenly.
Other Black creatives of the time included:
Broadway was forever changed by the musical Shuffle Along, which premiered in 1921 and was written by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Signaling both a revival and acceptance of Black participation in theatre, the musical casted a variety of Black actors. Perhaps of equal importance, Shuffle Along allowed Black audience members to sit in the orchestra; at that time, they were often relegated to the balcony. The musical also depicted one of the first serious Black love stories, introducing the song “Love Will Find a Way” and offering a star vehicle for its lead, Florence Mills.
One of the largest influences the Harlem Renaissance had on Broadway was through jazz music. Jazz – known to have been invented in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries by Black musicians – reached a height of popularity during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. (The same time as the Harlem Renaissance.)
With jazz music rising in the mainstream consciousness, many Broadway creators co-opted this musical form and introduced it into the theatre. Broadway shows began featuring jazz musicians – starting with the aforementioned Shuffle Along. This musical inspired more jazz-centric shows in the ‘20s, including The Chocolate Dandies, Runnin Wild, and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along.
While the popularity of this music style has ebbed and flowed over the decades, its influence can’t be overstated. Other jazz-influenced shows include Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies and Jump for Joy in the 1940s. Broadway jazz again rose in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Sugar Babies (1979) and Jelly’s Last Jam (1992), and we can still see jazz’s influence on Broadway today, with shows like The Lion King and The Book of Mormon.
Broadway itself is a conglomeration of inspirations – coming together to create this spirited art form. If you’re interested in learning more about the Harlem Renaissance and theatre and Broadway history, check out these resources: