Logline

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, and the brave African-American showman who left an extraordinary entertainment legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams.

Story

JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton's Harlem in Havana 
 A feature documentary film by Leslie Cunningham 


Logline: 

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, and the brave African-American showman who left an extraordinary entertainment legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams.


Synopsis:


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 entertainment during Jim Crow- Harlem in Havana! 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?



A magical journey into the complexities of American entertainment, race history and family, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton's Harlem in Havana is a compelling feature documentary film produced by director Leslie Cunningham who shines a spotlight on her family's Black and Cuban traveling carnival revue- a so-called “Jig Show" that endures racism, segregation and immigration laws to become popular in the 1940s through the 1960s. 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.

In the film, Leslie unearths the legend of her grandfather, producer Leon Claxton, a brave African-American showman who left an extraordinary show business legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams. One of America's first black entertainment moguls, Claxton was an African American impresario, award-winning showman and vaudeville entertainer who found great success and infamy in the outdoor entertainment industry with his popular stage revues including Harlem in Havana and the Harlem Revue. A star-maker who innovated musical theatre, Claxton helped spread Black and Latin music and dance to mainstream audiences during the era of Jim Crow, and produced a multicultural road show that would go on to influence the world of television, musical theatre and nightclub shows.
JIG SHOW considers Claxton’s life as a wealthy African American showman in Tampa, Florida, his marriage to his business partner Gwendolyn Bates Claxton, and how Claxton was a little-known civil rights hero who used his voice, money and fame to spotlight racial discrimination in the American South. Yet, tensions heat up when violent racial discrimination heightens in the U.S., Batista is ousted by Castro, the heir to the Harlem in Havana throne is taken away in haste, and Claxton must find a way to maneuver the political realities of the day.



Leslie is joined by a colorful cast of former performers and past patrons who witnessed the spectacle and share their memories. Leading the cast are Shirley Bates (Leslie's grandmother and the former lead dancer on the show in the 1940’s), and her son, John Cunningham (Leslie’s father), 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.
Above all else, Leslie is on a mission to preserve her family's legacy, before the memories die with a generation.


Academics and carnival historians bring their critical perspectives to the conversation in the educational film document that 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 the passion of the voluptuous showgirls and 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.


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.