JIG SHOW!?


Filmmaker Leslie Cunningham
An artist’s statement by Leslie Cunningham

In my lifetime, I’ve known the term ‘jiggaboo’, as an insult to black people, and I immediately made this connection. The idea of calling my film JIG SHOW made me very uncomfortable and continues to make me uncomfortable, as I suspect it will make others uncomfortable as well. 
Yet, the more I become aware of the power and punch this three-letter word holds in the progress of this project, the more I become aware of the inevitability of the title. 

During my research, I found an etymology of the term ‘jig’ born in the European renaissance, in celebration- play and dance to song- that devolved into a racist slur that found a temporary and perplexing home on the pages of Billboard magazine as Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana endeared fans in communities across North America, west of the Mississippi. This so-called ‘jig’ show became a gem in the cap of the world’s largest carnival, 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. 

I have come to understand that this word and classification reaches beyond the politics of the day as do the discourses on race engaged by my grandfather’s show. A journey into the complexity of American entertainment and race history, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, seeks to tell the most honest story. 

My own journey of the telling of my family’s story is an essential part of this film. In the film, my approach is grounded in the relationship between me and my grandfather, Leon Claxton, the main subject.  My deep connection to his spirit of entrepreneurship, my unique relationship with former performers, past patrons and familial ties to the Claxton legacy, adds to the authenticity and complex resonation of my grandfather’s life and the preservation of my family’s rich history. Above all else, my goal has been to rescue this arts and entertainment history from death and insert “Harlem in Havana” and the story of the traveling ‘jig show’ into the narrative of American popular culture before these memories and artifacts die with the individuals that carry them.