Documentary Filmmaker Claims Her Birthright; Uses Poetry and Indie Artist Friends to Help Tell Her Family’s Epic Story of an American Jig Show.
we’ve never met
but, I heard you were a wealthy showman
with a lavish home on the West side of Tampa
and a shiny new sedan
You were one of the first Black entertainment moguls
before Russell Simmons, Tyler Perry or P. Diddy
you rocked custom-made suits from Saskatoon
and puffed on Cuban cigars hand-rolled in Ybor City
Your leading lady Gwen was the perfect little wife
like Beyoncé to Jay-Z
a real woman in your life
and when it came to show biz she would compliment the deals
manage the home, the troupe, and stay fly,
and help you stack those mills…“
(Excerpt from “The Best Damn Jig Show”, a poem written by Leslie Cunningham)
Filmmaker and publisher Leslie Cunningham had no real knowledge of her grandfather’s entertainment legacy. Even as she was spotlighting independent artists in TRIBES magazine, her popular arts and entertainment publication, Leslie had no clue of the significant role her own family played in shaping American entertainment. Growing up, she heard very few stories of “Harlem in Havana”, a Black and Cuban traveling revue that was produced by her grandfather Leon Claxton, featured her foremothers performing exotic dance for whites-only audiences, and significantly impacted her father’s life. Yet, the turbulent times of Jim Crow, The Cuban Revolution and a family secret that would last for generations, made it nearly impossible for this important Black American history to be told- at least not until today.
Everything changed in the early 2000s, when Leslie’s grandmother Shirley Bates-Johnson (the lead dancer on Claxton’s show in the 1940s) entered into a nursing home and Leslie’s father John Cunningham, a Latin musician from San Diego, started writing a book about his time growing up on the show. He even found a song written by the great Canadian folk legend, Joni Mitchell. called “Harlem in Havana”. Black girls dancing long and leggy, snaky musicians, feathered drag queens? What was this amazing stage spectacle Mitchell was singing about? A mix of emotions came over Leslie. She was happy to hear about her family’s glorious legacy, but deeply saddened that she didn’t know her own family’s rich extensive history. In 2011, Leslie decided to put her magazine on hiatus and hit the road on a journey to learn more about her grandfather and his award-winning stage show that left carnival patrons across the U.S. and Western Canada amazed for nearly forty years. What she would unearth is the never-before told story of an American “Jig Show”, and a family legacy that would go on to significantly impact entertainment in ways that still resonate with wonder today.
Upon graduation from the Documentary Arts Program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, Leslie rolled up her sleeves and got to work on the creation of The Harlem in Havana Project, a multimedia documentary project in honor of her grandfather’s work. The project aims to revive Harlem in Havana’s rich Black and Cuban entertainment history through a variety of thought-provoking content, including: the website harleminhavana.com; a set of Brown-Skin Showgirls photography books; and, the long-awaited three-part documentary film series, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, which has taken Leslie more than ten years to complete.
“This project has so much cultural and social relevance because it teaches us more about African American and Afro-Cuban history and its mark on American culture. Harlem in Havana was the place where the future heavyweights of entertainment birthed new music, dance and comedy. This multimedia project provides an opportunity for a whole segment of artists to tap into this rich history and enhance their current art forms”, explains filmmaker Leslie.
In Part 1 of JIG SHOW, viewers are taken on a personal tour of Claxton’s high-caliber revue and we meet Leslie and her family in Tampa, Florida, the place where “Harlem in Havana” was headquartered for nearly 40 years, and where her 97 year-old grandmother lives today. Part 2 offers a closer look at the life of Leon Claxton, one of Tampa’s most beloved showman whose image is depicted in a West Tampa Mural titled “Faces of West Tampa” (created by artists Illsol, Tony Krol and Michelle Sawyer) as a reminder of the significant contributions Claxton made to the city, including the Claxton Manor Motel, one of the first racially integrated public accommodations in the city. Part 2 also delves into the American traveling carnival, and specifically Royal American Shows, the carnival organization that showcased Harlem in Havana to mainstream audiences for nearly 40 years. “It was just something people had never seen before, especially the music and the Salsa, the high energy, the heat coming off of it!” proclaims Laura Sedlmayr in her interview for the film. A huge supporter of the project. Laura is the granddaughter of the late Carl J. Sedlmayr Sr, the undisputed king of the North American carnival in the 20th century.
The film combines breathtaking never-before digitized show photographs, rarely seen historical clips and beautiful b-roll of the city of Tampa shot by cinematographer and Tampa native Alex Gazio, the three-part educational documentary film series features interviews with a colorful cast of former performers, past patrons, academics and carnival historians who bring their memories and perspectives to the conversation. Leslie also collaborated with some of her favorite indie artist friends she has featured in TRIBES magazine over the years. Helping to tell the story of her family’s entertainment empire are Greensboro Hip Hop artist and Poet Mr. Rozzi; African born-musician Mamoudou Balde; rock-n-roll musician and music composer Gordon Tittsworth, spoken word poet and activist Monica Daye, and Atlanta-based R&B artist and writer Jeremy Johnson (aka J’DA Prynce) who lent his voice for narration in part 2, and signed on as executive producer to help Leslie complete the film. A longtime poet and writer herself, Leslie user her own poetry in the film, opening part 2 with a poetic letter to Claxton, the grandfather she never knew (excerpt above).
Part 1 and 2 of JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana are available for viewing on VIMEO, a video hosting platform that allows viewers to rent or buy the film series in whole or parts. Coming in late August, Part 3 is the grand finale! Leslie is also working to secure live screenings of the entire film in 2022, and to complete the film study guide to be used at college and university screenings. The documentary film project has garnered support from the Southern Documentary Fund, ITVS’ Diversity Development Funding, Sundance’s New Frontier Program and a host of individual donors, funders and supporters. In honor of her grandfather Leon Claxton’s charitable work, Leslie is giving back. She has chosen Stand Up Speak Out – NC (SUSO) to be a recipient of $1.00 for every online order of the film. SUSO is a Durham, NC based non-profit organization that provides children and teens therapeutic support through art therapy.
To watch the film series, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, visit http://www.jigshow.com. To learn about The Harlem in Havana Project, visit http://www.harleminhavana.com. To learn more about filmmaker Leslie Cunningham, visit lesliecunninghamfilms.com.