“The Book of Obsidian: A Handbook for the 21st Century Black American Gentleman”
We don’t see where the roar is coming from.
But you can hear it, and that’s what matters. The role was made for you, you hit every line and every note, the audience loved you – and now the roar of cheers and applause is yours.
How long does the standing ovation last? How loud are they clapping? And, in his new book “Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way”
Caseen Gaines explores the question, how long will your star stay up in the air?
Growing up in an affluent black neighborhood of Columbia, Tenn., Flournoy Miller had everything he could want – and when he was 9 he wanted to be on stage. It was 1894 and his parents had taken him to see Sissieretta Jones, a famous soprano and one of the highest paid black artists of the time.
“Miller,” Gaines says, “was captivated.”
And yet, growing up, Miller knew that fame was a dangerous reach. Every black artist seemed to know someone who was killed by whites for no reason, but once Miller met Aubrey Lyles in 1903 and “the two of them hit it off right away,” the warning was ignored.
Miller, in fact, was more determined than ever to fame, and the two developed a popular comedy act.
Since childhood, Noble Sissle loved to sing. Few things pleased him more than a chance to perform in church, and while he was expected to become a minister like his father, he became more passionate about music.
When Sissle found a job in Baltimore, he met Eubie Blake, a talented pianist who grew up in a divine house as a child and honed her brothel skills as a teenager. They too became quick friends and potential collaborators.
It’s a small world, and because they worked in the same industry, Miller and Lyles knew Sissle and Blake and there was mutual respect all around. They had pitched the idea of working together on a show, but the idea did not merge until early 1921.
And, “with nothing but a handshake deal ..” Gaines said, “the quartet agreed to give it a go.”
The best thing about “Footnotes” is this: you don’t have to be a theater lover to enjoy it. You don’t even need to have seen a play. You can love this lively and sparkling book for no reason but just because.
Although it takes a while to get there and it may not seem like it, the main subject of this book is the musical “Shuffle Along”. Gaines seems to use this main feature as a backdrop as he wraps the biographies, history, and everyday life of this century-old show to show how it came about and why it was so important to black culture.
There is racism in this story, of course, but also determination and a feeling of opulence and grandeur at times. It can be a matter of well-being, but it also hurts.
Shakespeare said, “The play is the thing”, as did “Footnotes”. If you like Broadway, history, or books on culture this will have you roaring.
“Footnotes: Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way” by Caseen Gaines. c. 2021, Sourcebooks $ 26.99 / up in Canada 448 pages