JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton's Harlem in Havana
A 3-part documentary film series by Leslie Cunningham
The glorious legend of Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, a so-called "Jig show" that endures racism, segregation and immigration laws to become popular in the 1940s through the 1960s. See the brown-skin showgirls and meet the brave African-American showman who left an extraordinary legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams.
In this untold triumph of the spirit story, Claxton and his brown-skin troupe break barriers and perform for “Whites only” audiences, aptly competing for box office to have the best outdoor attraction in North America, and win the hearts of a changing pop culture. But with social revolutions in the U.S. and Cuba, and a startling family secret, what would be the fate of Harlem in Havana, one of the greatest variety shows of our time?
Step right up, folks! The last remaining great troupers are finally telling their stories about one of America's most successful traveling shows that broke carnival records, birthed music icons, and significantly impacted Black and Latin entertainment during Jim Crow. Also unearthed is the legend of producer Leon Claxton, a brave African-American showman who left an extraordinary entertainment legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams.
A magical journey into the complexities of American entertainment, race history and family, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton's Harlem in Havana is a compelling 3-part documentary film series produced by director Leslie Cunningham. In the film, Leslie shines a spotlight on her grandfather’s tent theatre presentation of Black and Cuban music, dance and comedy that was the leading attraction n Royal American Show North American carnival exhibition for nearly four decades of the 20th century.
Labeled a 'Jig show' by the outdoor entertainment industry and media of the day, Harlem in Havana, nevertheless, rose above the segregated carnival stage and achieved mainstream and international attention. Harlem in Havana financially toppled its competition, smashed industry records and garnered nation-wide and international publicity as one of the finest revues ever presented under canvas. Yet, tensions heat up when violent racial discrimination heightens in the U.S., Batista is ousted by Castro, and the heir to the Harlem in Havana throne is taken away in haste, and Claxton and his troupe must maneuver the social and political realities that threaten his show's existence.
How did a "colored jig show" become the best outdoor attraction before the American public during the era of Jim Crow?
The incubation period of the so-called ‘jig show’ in a moment immediately preceding the explosion of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cuban Revolution, has made the story of Harlem in Havana, and the carnival stage which the ‘jig Show’ was a cornerstone, difficult to render. Still, Leslie, granddaughter of one of America’s top show producers, is on a mission to unearth this little known show business history, reclaim her family’s disregarded legacy and enrich the whole of our cultural knowledge before the memories die with a generation.
Most Notably, Harlem in Havana was a needed platform during a time when mainstream entertainment was closed to blacks and other performers of color. The popular traveling show was also for African American audiences during a time when mainstream entertainment was off-limits to Blacks. Harlem in Havana was also most often the only carnival venue people of color were permitted to patronize under Jim Crow law. In cities like Tampa, Memphis and Little Rock, practically every black person in the city went see to Claxton’s stage revue on Negro Day.
Harlem in Havana also confirmed a willingness of Cuban and Black American alignment before the Cuban revolution, a formation often denied today. The film considers Claxton’s work in pre-revolution Cuba, maneuvering the government and working closely with Cuban officials and nationals. But, when racial tensions rise in the U.S., Batista is ousted by Castro, and the heir to the ‘Harlem in Havana’ throne is taken away in haste, it becomes increasingly harder for Claxton and his brown-skin troupe to outmaneuver the social and political realities that threaten his show’s existence.
Documenting the life and times of producer Leon Claxton
We follow Leslie traveling on the road collecting the memories of former members of the cast and past patrons who witnessed her grandfather’s show. Switching lanes between national history and personal memoirs. Leslie turns the cameras on her own 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.
The cast is led by main characters Shirley Bates, a former lead dancer on the show in the 1940’s, and her son, John, 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.
Academics and carnival historians also bring their perspective to the conversation. This film series combines breathtaking show photographs, rarely seen historical clips and beautiful b-roll of the city of Tampa highlighting where Claxton and Harlem in Havana were headquartered for nearly 40 years. Classic and new Hip Hop music honor the bumpy nights and long rides on train car #66, and passion of the voluptuous showgirls and entertainers who bravely showcased their talents on the front-line of racial polarization and left an indelible mark on entertainment around the globe.
Ultimately, JIG SHOW is a celebration of our multifaceted past and a path for the descendants of African and Latino-Americans to look back, embrace the past, and liberate their own stories from historical amnesia.