Story | Trailer
JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton's Harlem in Havana
A documentary film by Leslie Cunningham
Step right up, folks! The last remaining great troupers are finally telling their stories about one of America's most successful traveling shows. JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana is a compelling hour-long documentary film narrated by filmmaker Leslie Cunningham who takes viewers on a tour of her family’s popular Black and Cuban stage show that broke carnival records across the U.S. and Western Canada, birthed music icons Rufus Thomas, Fontella Bass and Mercedes Valdés, and significantly impacted Black and Latin entertainment during Jim Crow. Also unearthed is the life and lore of her grandfather Leon Claxton, a brave African-American showman who left an extraordinary legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams.
Switching lanes between national history and personal memoirs, Leslie turns the cameras on her family to understand how her grandfather went from humble beginnings in Memphis as water boy for Ringling Brothers Circus to producing a groundbreaking and highly successful multicultural stage show that earned him millions and a place in history. Yet, when racial tensions rise in the U.S., Batista is ousted by Castro, and the heir to the ‘Harlem in Havana’ throne is taken a way in hast, it becomes increasingly harder for Claxton to outmaneuver the social and political realities that threaten his show’s existence.
The cast is led by main characters Shirley Bates, a former lead dancer on the show in the 1940’s, and her son by Claxton, John Cunningham, who was raised on the show and drove stakes with the tent-hands in the 1950s. As Claxton family, their lives were deeply affected by Claxton's life and work, and their exclusive on-camera interviews add layers to this epic story. However, JIG SHOW is not just about family, but triumphs, connections and weaving across cultural divides.
A magical journey into the complexities of American entertainment, race history and family legacy, JIG SHOW combines breathtaking show photographs, rarely seen historical clips and on-interviews with a colorful cast of former performers, past patrons, historians and academics who bring their critical perspective to the conversation. Beautiful b-roll of the city of Tampa highlight where Claxton and Harlem in Havana were headquartered for nearly 40 years. Classic and new music honor the beloved showman, voluptuous brown-skin showgirls and tenacious entertainers of color who bravely showcased their talents on the front-line of racial polarization and left an indelible mark on entertainment around the globe.
Status: In post-production.