JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana – A documentary film by Leslie Cunningham(2022, runtime 1hr:46min)
Brown skin showgirls, whites-only audiences, and the brave African American showman who left an extraordinary entertainment legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams.
Step right up, folks! The last remaining great troupers are finally telling their stories about Harlem in Havana, one of America’s most successful traveling shows that broke carnival records from the U.S. to Western Canada, birthed music icons like Rufus Thomas, Fontella Bass and Mercedes Valdés and significantly impacted Black entertainment during the era of Jim Crow. Also unearthed is the legend of Tampa’s beloved showman Leon Claxton, the award-winning producer 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 three-part film document produced by director Leslie Cunningham, the granddaughter of a great impresario, who sheds light on an under-explored aspect of black popular culture in the American, the traveling “jig show”. In this untold story, road show producer Leon Claxton and his brown-skin troupe break barriers to perform for “whites only”, enduring racism, state-sanctioned segregation and immigration laws to become popular in the 1930s through the 1960s. 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?
In the film document, Leslie is on the road collecting the memories of former performers and past patrons who witnessed her family’s carnival show Harlem in Havana. This wildly popular Black and Cuban presentation of specialized music, dance, and burlesque-style performance became the leading outdoor attraction before the American public during Jim Crow and left an indelible mark on the history of American entertainment. Switching lanes between Black history, and personal memoirs, Leslie turns the cameras on her own family to understand how her grandfather, Leon Claxton, went from humble beginnings in Memphis as water boy for Ringling Brothers Circus- to producing a groundbreaking and highly successful show that earned him millions and a place in history.
JIG SHOW combines interviews with a colorful cast led by Leslie’s grandmother Shirley Bates, the former lead exotic dancer on the show in the 1940s, and her son John Cunningham (Leslie’s father), a San Diego musician who was raised on the show and drove stakes with the tent-hands. 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 historians bring their critical perspectives to the conversation, including burlesque artist Bebe Bardeaux (Bardot), host of the New York School of Burlesque book club, who leads the way with a titillating performance and a lively conversation with Leslie about the Bates Sisters and the Cuban Dancing Dolls who innovated Black Burlesque and Cuban dance on Claxton’s stage show. Carnival historian Doc Rivera and Laura Sedlmayr offer a detailed look at the American traveling carnival, specifically Royal American Showswhere Leon Claxton’s so-called “jig show” was featured on the world’s largest carnival midway for nearly 40 years.
Dr. Cheryl Rodriguez, associate professor of Black Life at USF, talks about Jim Crow and recalls witnessing Harlem in Havana as a youth on “Negro Day” at the Florida State Fair. Dr. Susan Greenbaum, professor emeritus of anthropology at USF, considers Cuba before the Fidel Castro led revolution, and Andrea Woods-Valdés, professor of dance at Duke University discusses the work of popular Cuban artists like Mercedes Valdés who brought Santeria music to mainstream audiences with her famous act, “A mythical trip to Havana” in the 1950s.
Take a long ride on train car #66, home for Claxton’s troupe every carnival season that traveled through segregated states in the Deep South and faced racial discrimination along the way. When tensions rise in the U.S. and Cuba, and the successor 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 realities that threaten his show’s existence.
The film concludes with a look at Claxton’s final revue, The Harlem Revue, as well as Claxton’s business, like the Claxton Manor Motel, and philanthropy work in the city of Tampa, Florida before his death in 1967. Leslie’s grandmother and father John come to terms with their family’s secret to help heal future generations to come.
Timely and educational, the film features breathtaking never-before digitized show photographs, rarely seen historical clips, and beautiful b-roll of the city of Tampa. Latin beats, Hip Hop music. and classic tunes honor the bumpy nights, and the passion of the voluptuous showgirls who bravely showcased their talents on the front-line of racial polarization and left a legacy that still resonates with wonder today. JIG SHOW features the work of some of today’s most talented indie artists including: Hip Hop Poet Mr. Rozzi; African musician Mamoudou Balde; rock-n-roll musician and music composer Gordon Tittsworth, and spoken word poet and activist Monica Daye who pays tribute to Joni Mitchell, with her remix of “Harlem in Havana”. Visual artist Derrick Bryant brings his colorful recreations to the film, while Atlanta-based R&B artist Jeremy Johnson lends his voice for narration.
Ultimately JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana 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.
Learn about the Harlem in Havana Project.