Compelling New Documentary Sheds Light on a Little Known Aspect of Black and Latino Culture in America, the Traveling Jig Show; Production Set for Tampa; Hits Cucalorus Film Festival’s Work in Progress Program in November 2015
Step Right Up, Folks! The last remaining great troupers are finally telling their stories about one of America’s most successful traveling shows. A compelling feature documentary film in progress by director Leslie Cunningham, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana shines a light on a little known aspect of Black and Latino culture in America, the traveling Jig Show.
Leslie, the granddaughter of a great African American impresario, narrates the telling of the story of Harlem in Havana, her own family’s famous Black and Cuban stage show that rose above the segregated stage and achieved mainstream and international recognition in the middle decades of the 20th century, despite turbulent Jim Crow times.
Also unearthed is the little known legacy of top show producer and one of Tampa’s most beloved showmen, Leon Claxton, whose vision, passion and determination produced a show that still resonates today.
JIG SHOW is the encore presentation- nearly 50 years after the epic show’s last curtain call. Filled with never-before-digitized archive photographs, historical clips, artful reenactments and music remembering the times, the film delves into the legend of Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, the leading attraction on Royal American Shows North American carnival exhibition for nearly four consecutive decades.
Harlem in Havana was a spectacular showcase of colored music, dance and comedy that helped launch the careers of entertainment heavyweights Chuck Berry, Merceditas Valdez, Redd Foxx, Rufus Thomas and Fontella Bass. The epic traveling revue played a major role in shaping American pop culture in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
A needed platform during a time when mainstream entertainment was closed to blacks and other people of color in America, Harlem in Havana had a huge impact on Black and Latino pop culture. Claxton’s showcase presented entertainers of color to segregated audiences across North America and played a major role in offering Jim Crow America, pre-communist Cuba and Canada, new images of Black and Latino identity while spreading Afro-Cuban and African American rhythms across the region. Most notably, Harlem in Havana was often the only carnival venue people of color were permitted to patronize under Jim Crow law.
Five years ago, Leslie, publisher of an indy arts and entertainment magazine, set out on a journey to learn about her own family’s entertainment legacy. Her grandmother and great aunts, the Bates Sisters, were lead dancers in Harlem in Havana in the 1940s. Her father, John Cunningham, was raised on the show and drove stakes with the tent-hands in his teens in the late 50s. Cunningham’s deep connection to her grandfather’s spirit of entrepreneurship, her unique relationship with film historians and familial ties to the Claxton legacy, adds to the authenticity and complex resonation of her grandfather’s life and the preservation of her family’s rich history.
Leslie admits she was offended when she learned her family’s high-caliber all-colored revue was considered the carnival jig show. She had always known ‘jig’ as an insult to black people and immediately made the connection to the term born in the European renaissance in celebration of play and dance to song that devolved into a racist slur and found a temporary and perplexing home on the pages of Billboard Magazine. Her grandfather’s so called ‘jig’ show became a gem in the cap of the world’s largest carnival. Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana endeared fans in communities across North America, west of the Mississippi, while performers of color back east bumped painfully against the walls of the Chitlin Circuit or the coveted few opportunities in America’s major cities.
“The carnival stage is often overlooked when recalling the contributions Black and Latino performers had on entertainment in America,” says Leslie. A forgotten legacy born out of black-face minstrel, this brown-skin human circus of the 20th century washed away the tar mask, gave dignity back to the stars and took vaudeville and burlesque to new heights of popularity and circulation through a myriad of routes. Leslie is on a mission to unearth is important American entertainment history, reclaim her family’s disregarded legacy and enrich the whole of our cultural knowledge before the memories die with the generation that carries them.
In September 2015, Leslie and her crew will travel to Tampa, Florida, the headquarters to Harlem in Havana for more than 40 years, to complete production in the key city. While there, Leslie will interview academics, carnival historians, former performers and patrons of Harlem in Havana. Filming will take place at the Museum of the American Carnival in Gibsonton, FL.
Coming in 2016, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana was recently accepted into the Cucalorus Film Festival Work in Progress Program. Cucalorus is a non-competitive festival focused on supporting innovative artists and encouraging creative exchange. The festival is held each November in historic downtown Wilmington, North Carolina with screenings of 150 films from around the world. The Works-in-Progress program plays on the double meaning of the word “progress” by supporting films in-production by progressive filmmakers. The Works-in-Progress program is a partnership between Alternate ROOTS, Working Films, the Southern Documentary Fund and is funded in part by the North Carolina Arts Council and Alternate ROOTS.
To learn how you can make a tax-deductible donation to the film project, visit the fiscal sponsor website. For more information, visit jigshow.com or harleminhavana.com.
Follow the film on Twitter at twitter.com/jigshowfilm.