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Reading guide for When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines

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When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines

When Broadway Was Black

The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical that Changed the World (aka Footnotes)

by Caseen Gaines
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  • First Published:
  • May 25, 2021
  • Paperback:
  • Feb 2023
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. In the opening of the book, Sissle, Miller, and Lyles brace for the worst during Shuffle Along's most sincere love song. Why were they so afraid of the fallout from that particular scene?
  2. In describing Miller's childhood, Gaines draws attention to the relationship between economic class and racism. How would you describe that relationship? What are some ways in which race and class intersect throughout the narrative?
  3. Diverse racial representation has a marked impact on audiences, but what effect does it have on future productions? How did Shuffle Along build on the accomplishments of earlier all-Black shows like A Trip to Coontown, In Dahomey, and Bandanna Land?
  4. What did you think of Black performers including blackface in their own productions? What advantages and disadvantages did they court by perpetuating minstrelsy tropes and broader Black stereotypes?
  5. Blake's parents disagreed about whether to talk about their pasts. Blake's mother would never even admit that she had been enslaved, while his father thought discussing slavery was crucial. Who did you agree with and why?
  6. When the James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra is served dishwater instead of the meal they were promised, Blake observes that "Jim Europe didn't get where he is with the white folks by complainin'." How does this capture the tenuous balance the performers were trying to strike between largescale success and respect?
  7. Describe Jim Europe's impact on Noble Sissle. How did Europe's example guide Sissle in advancing his career and highlighting the artistry of other Black performers?
  8. During their vaudeville days, Blake and Sissle had contrasting views on their never-ending travel, a lifestyle that could be dangerous for Black performers. Would you travel most of the year if it meant you could follow your dream, or would you rather have a consistent place to call home?
  9. Shuffle Along was celebrated for introducing Black women to the stage but earned a reputation for rejecting or sidelining chorus girls for being "too dark." Were the show's creators wrong for casting based on skin color? How does colorism compare to racism more generally?
  10. Miller and Lyles thought that it was unfair that Blake and Sissle were making more money from the show and its music. Did you think Miller and Lyles were entitled to any portion of the royalties from Shuffle Along's sheet music?
  11. In their later ventures, Sissle and Blake were challenged by (white) critics who thought their shows had "too much 'art' and not enough Africa." How did they handle this criticism? What would you have done in their position?
  12. In your opinion, what is Shuffle Along's most lasting impact? Do you think it should be revived? How can we preserve the contributions it made to the theatrical canon?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Sourcebooks. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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Beyond the Book:
  Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle

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