Eubie! celebrates the spirit of Great Depression-era Harlem 

MOJA | Keep It Rolling

Produced by Art Forms & Theatre Concepts
Sept. 24-27, 8 p.m., Sept. 25-26, 11 a.m., Sept. 26-28, 3 p.m., Sept. 28, 7 p.m.
Memminger Auditorium
20 Beaufain St.
(843) 554-6060

Before Eubie Blake and the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, Broadway audiences never witnessed serious romantic relationships between black characters.

The theater community had largely dealt with non-white love stories with a low comedy air. With Shuffle Along, Blake acknowledged that African-Americans were emotional equals to white Americans.

It's fitting that Eubie Blake played such a role in breaking that barrier.

A Baltimore native and a prodigy, his impoverished parents paid 25 cents a month to purchase him a $75 organ.

By his early teens, he was lying about his age to play in clubs. His tinkling ragtime-style expanded on Vaudeville, infusing it with a toe-tapping emotion that grew with the storylines he composed for.

Although records aren't available of Blake visiting South Carolina, one of his most famous tunes is the infectious "Charleston Rag." That faint connection contributed to the selection of Eubie! by Art Forms & Theatre Concepts as their offering for the 25th anniversary of MOJA.

"This is a special year for the MOJA festival, and I felt that Eubie! sums up the emotions that a lot of people had after the Depression," says director Art Gilliard. "There was a mixture of pain, love, confusion, party times, and all of the feelings that happened in the 1920s and '30s."

Gilliard says he'd hesitated to produce Eubie! in the past, but with the reopening of Memminger Auditorium, he knew he had the right environment.

Eubie! borrows from several of the musicals on which Blake collaborated with lyricist Noble Sissle, creating a "best of" showcase. It doesn't follow a plot, but instead features a series of vignettes centered around the bustling Harlem neighborhood of the era — run-down financially, but thriving artistically.

"People left Charleston and the Lowcountry area and moved up to New York," Gilliard says. "Harlem was a place they gravitated toward.

"The basic storyline is that people fall in love, break up, cause heartaches, and then look for happiness in whatever forms they can find.

"Harlem was a pretty depressed environment at the time, but despite that, people still had to find outlets that stirred their spirit."

One noteworthy scene, called "The Bus," includes two characters on a bench, waiting for their ride. They meet as strangers, and one thinks the other admires him. The second is not sure if she does or not, and they bicker before hugging and parting ways.

"Before they leave, they encounter confusion, anger, and it just shows how people handled their feelings at the time," Gilliard says. "People were miserable, but they could laugh at each other's jokes."

Another scene, called "Roll Jordan," begins with a weary woman hurt by love. As the song "rolls along," Gilliard says, the audience gets to clapping, and the scene moves from a sad to happy experience.

"It's about being happy for what it is right now," Gilliard says.

Eubie!'s 10-person cast is evenly split between men and women, made up of a few seasoned actors and several Lowcountry youngsters.

The show features near-constant dance numbers and a four-piece band keeping the rhythm and melody. Gilliard opted to shift the focus from Broadway's emphasis on tap to an emphasis on jazz, giving it more of a Charleston flavor, he says. He's also staggered the performances from evenings to matinees at 11 a.m.

If you could ask him, Blake would tell you he lived to be 100 years old. Records indicate that he fibbed about his age from childhood onward.

Although Blake finally passed away in 1983, the year of the inaugural MOJA (he was probably 96), his grin-inducing, piano-tapping tunes may never age.

If you like this, you might like Crowns, a musical by the Footlight Players, Oct. 3 at 8 p.m., Oct. 4, 3 p.m., at 20 Queen St., 722-4487,


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