Harlem in Havana is Back! Production Set for Tampa; Hits Cucalorus 2015

Compelling New Documentary Sheds Light on a Little Known Aspect of Black and Latino Culture in America, the Traveling Jig Show; Production Set for Tampa; Hits Cucalorus Film Festival’s Work in Progress Program in November 2015


Step Right Up, Folks! The last remaining great troupers are finally telling their stories about one of America’s most successful traveling shows. A compelling feature documentary film in progress by director Leslie Cunningham, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana shines a light on a little known aspect of Black and Latino culture in America, the traveling Jig Show.

Leslie Cunningham Filmmaker

Leslie, the granddaughter of a great African American impresario, narrates the telling of the story of Harlem in Havana, her own family’s famous Black and Cuban stage show that rose above the segregated stage and achieved mainstream and international recognition in the middle decades of the 20th century, despite turbulent Jim Crow times.


Also unearthed is the little known legacy of top show producer and one of Tampa’s most beloved showmen, Leon Claxton, whose vision, passion and determination produced a show that still resonates today.

JIG SHOW is the encore presentation- nearly 50 years after the epic show’s last curtain call. Filled with never-before-digitized archive photographs, historical clips, artful reenactments and music remembering the times, the film delves into the legend of Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, the leading attraction on Royal American Shows North American carnival exhibition for nearly four consecutive decades.

Harlem in Havana was a spectacular showcase of colored music, dance and comedy that helped launch the careers of entertainment heavyweights Chuck Berry, Merceditas Valdez, Redd Foxx, Rufus Thomas and Fontella Bass. The epic traveling revue played a major role in shaping American pop culture in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.


A needed platform during a time when mainstream entertainment was closed to blacks and other people of color in America, Harlem in Havana had a huge impact on Black and Latino pop culture. Claxton’s showcase presented entertainers of color to segregated audiences across North America and played a major role in offering Jim Crow America, pre-communist Cuba and Canada, new images of Black and Latino identity while spreading Afro-Cuban and African American rhythms across the region. Most notably, Harlem in Havana was often the only carnival venue people of color were permitted to patronize under Jim Crow law.

Five years ago, Leslie, publisher of an indy arts and entertainment magazine, set out on a journey to learn about her own family’s entertainment legacy. Her grandmother and great aunts, the Bates Sisters, were lead dancers in Harlem in Havana in the 1940s. Her father, John Cunningham, was raised on the show and drove stakes with the tent-hands in his teens in the late 50s. Cunningham’s deep connection to her grandfather’s spirit of entrepreneurship, her unique relationship with film historians and familial ties to the Claxton legacy, adds to the authenticity and complex resonation of her grandfather’s life and the preservation of her family’s rich history.


Leslie admits she was offended when she learned her family’s high-caliber all-colored revue was considered the carnival jig show. She had always known ‘jig’ as an insult to black people and immediately made the connection to the term born in the European renaissance in celebration of play and dance to song that devolved into a racist slur and found a temporary and perplexing home on the pages of Billboard Magazine. Her grandfather’s so called ‘jig’ show became a gem in the cap of the world’s largest carnival. Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana endeared fans in communities across North America, west of the Mississippi, while performers of color back east bumped painfully against the walls of the Chitlin Circuit or the coveted few opportunities in America’s major cities.

“The carnival stage is often overlooked when recalling the contributions Black and Latino performers had on entertainment in America,” says Leslie. A forgotten legacy born out of black-face minstrel, this brown-skin human circus of the 20th century washed away the tar mask, gave dignity back to the stars and took vaudeville and burlesque to new heights of popularity and circulation through a myriad of routes. Leslie is on a mission to unearth is important American entertainment history, reclaim her family’s disregarded legacy and enrich the whole of our cultural knowledge before the memories die with the generation that carries them.

In September 2015, Leslie and her crew will travel to Tampa, Florida, the headquarters to Harlem in Havana for more than 40 years, to complete production in the key city. While there, Leslie will interview academics, carnival historians, former performers and patrons of Harlem in Havana. Filming will take place at the Museum of the American Carnival in Gibsonton, FL.

Coming in 2016, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana was recently accepted into the Cucalorus Film Festival Work in Progress Program. Cucalorus is a non-competitive festival focused on supporting innovative artists and encouraging creative exchange. The festival is held each November in historic downtown Wilmington, North Carolina with screenings of 150 films from around the world. The Works-in-Progress program plays on the double meaning of the word “progress” by supporting films in-production by progressive filmmakers. The Works-in-Progress program is a partnership between Alternate ROOTS, Working Films, the Southern Documentary Fund and is funded in part by the North Carolina Arts Council and Alternate ROOTS.

To learn how you can make a tax-deductible donation to the film project, visit the fiscal sponsor website. For more information, visit jigshow.com or harleminhavana.com.

Follow the film on Twitter at twitter.com/jigshowfilm.

Help Leslie bring Harlem in Havana to the Big Screen!


Dear Supporters, Family and Friends:

I am excited to announce the launch of our crowdfunding campaign for JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana. In partnership with the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), we are seeking $10,000 to complete production in the city of Tampa. Your contributions will be used in the following three areas:

  • HD production crew
  • Equipment rental
  • Travel & accommodations
Additional funds raised over the goal will be used for production in other key cities. Ultimately the goal is to travel to Western Canada and Havana, Cuba in order to capture the true essence of the film. Your support will help us finish the documentary and bring it to an international audience. All funds received through this crowdfunding campaign (and other donations) will be 100% managed by our fiscal sponsor, SDF.  To learn how you can make a tax-deductible donation, and to learn about some interesting rewards we’re offering our supporters, please visit OUR INDIEGOGO PAGE.
Here are 3 ways you can help:
  1. Visit our Indiegogo campaign page to SUPPORT our campaign and claim your rewards within 30 days. Crowdfunding campaigns are most successful when they receive about one-third of their goal in the first few days. Donations made through our Indiegogo site are tax deductible donations.
  2. Personally SHARE this project with at least 3 friends who you think might want to support the film. Nothing beats word of mouth when it comes to getting a campaign to take off.
  3. HELP spread the word to your network of friends and colleagues via Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter with a brief mention of our film and our fundraising link.
We hope you will join our community of supporters and thank you in advance for helping us reach the finish line!
Leslie Cunningham, filmmaker
Visit jigshow.com or harleminhavana.com to learn more.

Brown Skin Showgirls, a photographic collection



There are many art and entertainment resources that reference the contributions and important role women of color played in shaping the art of dance in North America. However, it is rare to encounter a historically rich and visually stunning book that is dedicated solely to the brown skin showgirl or black burlesque of the early to mid 20th century.

BROWN SKIN SHOWGIRLS is a black and white photographic collection of burlesque, exotic, shake and chorus line dancers, strippers and cross-dressers from Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana Revue during its run on Royal American Shows from 1936 to 1967. This book is guaranteed to expand your knowledge of Black and Cuban performers that shaped American popular culture. Get ready to be titillated! Order your copy now. 

Leslie Cunningham

Durham Needs A Living Wage!


I am very proud be on the steering committee for The Durham Living Project, a project of The People’s Alliance Fund in Durham, NC. I will be co-chairing communications and marketing as a part of an all-volunteer group of community members  – workers and employers – created a working group to get the program off the ground. This Project’s existence is owed to many, many volunteer hours and the steadfast support and generous contributions from local businesses, organizations and artists. Please view the crowdfunding video I produced for the program. To learn more or to donate, visit http://www.durhamlivingwage.org.  Yours in the struggle, Leslie!






Jiggaboo…jigga…jigger…jig. As a journalist and documentarian, I am compelled to search out truth in my work and without bias of my own positionality in the world or in relation to the subject. Thus, I admit, I was offended when I learned my grandfather’s show, Harlem in Havana, was considered the carnival ‘Jig Show’.

In my lifetime, I’ve known the term ‘jiggaboo’, as an insult to black people, and I immediately made this connection. The idea of calling my film JIG SHOW made me very uncomfortable and continues to make me uncomfortable, as I suspect it will make others uncomfortable as well.

Filmmaker Leslie Cunningham

Yet, the more I become aware of the power and punch this three-letter word holds in the progress of this project, the more I become aware of the inevitability of the title. During my research, I found an etymology of the term ‘jig’ born in the European renaissance, in celebration- play and dance to song- that devolved into a racist slur that found a temporary and perplexing home on the pages of Billboard magazine as Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana endeared fans in communities across North America, west of the Mississippi. This so-called ‘jig’ show became a gem in the cap of the world’s largest carnival, while performers of color back east bumped painfully against the walls of the Chitlin Circuit or the coveted few opportunities in America’s major cities.

I have come to understand that this word and classification reaches beyond the politics of the day as do the discourses on race engaged by my grandfather’s show. A journey into the complexity of American entertainment and race history, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, seeks to tell the most honest story.

FILM STATUS: Currently in early production. Stay tuned at jigshow.com.