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Staging the Great Migration: The Chocolate Kiddies and the German Experience of the New Negro Renaissance

On May 24, 1925, Elisabeth (“Li”) Zielesch reported for Berliner Volks Zeitung on a dress rehearsal of the first Black revue to tour interwar Europe, The Chocolate Kiddies, as they prepared for a sold-out residency at Berlin’s Admiralpalast (fig. 1). The performance astounded her. It was a full sensory experience, featuring almost fifty performers. Divided into four sections, the program reflected the temporal and geographic movement of Black American life and culture: “Plantation at sundown,” “Harlem in New York—negro life,” Sam Wooding’s Specialty Concert, and “Harlem cabaret.”[1] The cast included veteran performers from Harlem stages, including the Colonial, the Plantation, and the 63rd Street Theater. The singers Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall had been leads in the premier of Shuffle Along, and Charles Davis had been one of its choreographers.[2] Wooding, the revue’s bandleader, was a talented stride pianist in New York’s jazz scene, previously working in cabarets in Atlantic City and Newark, New Jersey before the First World War, and playing in some of the most recognized clubs and cabarets in Harlem, including the Nest, Club Alabam, and Barron Wilkins’ Exclusive Club. These clubs and theaters were an important training ground for Black talent to prove their skill and learn to work within the racist gaze of white audiences.[3]

This article reveals how The Chocolate Kiddies transformed understandings of race in Germany during their European tour in 1925. For cast members of The Chocolate Kiddies, their performances in Germany at once continued the notion of the plantation as a site of return and transformed notions of race through song and dance. Zielesch’s reportage provides some of the most detailed descriptions of how the production looked and sounded. Importantly, however, where the revue directly challenged racist accounts of Black life in America, Zielesch promoted the production through particular references to American slavery, negating much of the revue’s attempts to establish new understanding of Black identity.[4]

Previously, most scholars have believed that these tours presented an inauthentic watered-down version of Black culture that played to European tastes for jovial Black entertainment analogous to the traditions of blackface minstrelsy.[5] This, I argue, is a particularly unhelpful reading. Such an explanation would have one believe that the performers in front of German audiences were not masters of their craft, familiar with the complexities of racial representation in front of white audiences, but people forced to replicate some lesser form of Black art. This analysis ignores the maneuvering that Black performers brought to the stage. As I explore, these veterans of Harlem and Broadway, far from presenting diluted forms of Black culture, became the first representatives of the New Negro Renaissance in Germany exactly because they understood how to perform for non-Black audiences. This experience for audiences as well as for performers is what Shane Vogel calls “Jim Crow cosmopolitanism,” in which audiences felt cosmopolitan and modern because they were watching Black Harlem performances, just as performers on the stage felt a racial gaze on their bodies (The Scene, 81). Just as the Cotton Club, a segregated venue, served as vehicle for Duke Ellington’s rise to fame, including a weekly radio broadcast that brought the Cotton Club into American homes around the country, the audience at the Admiralpalast had the performance culture of Harlem brought to them.

The Chocolate Kiddies followed in the footsteps of the transformative Black Broadway plays Shuffle Along and the lesser-known Negro Nuances. Like these breakthrough performances for white audiences, the presence of Black performers staging the movement from the plantation to the urban north brought a modernist challenge to German notions of race. In using “modernist challenge,” I draw attention to the ways that performers attempted to transform the image of Black people beyond African primitives and Black American minstrels by staging the Great Migration. Zielesch’s article enacts this astonishment in the preservation and adaption of Black artistry in American urban life. Yet, as a form of promotion, her account suggests that she saw the minstrel tradition not only as a springboard for The Chocolate Kiddies but a means of tempting German audiences with a familiar setting of Black life. Thus, Zielesch’s interlocution at once reveals both the intentionality of the revue and her attempt to play on the desires of a German public.

Moving North

The revue began with “Plantation at sundown,” suggesting that the show would not linger in America’s past. Arthur “Strut” Payne opened with “Old Black Joe,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” and “Swanee River.” He was followed by a full company dance number, Bobby and Babe Goins’ acrobatics, the Three Eddies, and an “eccentric dance” by George Staton. The second section, “Harlem in New York—negro life,” transported audiences geographically as well as ideologically away from the plantation into the modern North and the urban setting of the New Negro Renaissance. This section consisted of eight different performances, including the premiere of the Charleston for German audiences by Adelaide Hall, Rufus Greenlee, and Teddy Drayton. These performances eased audiences into contemporary Black American popular culture. Even the name, “negro life,” suggests the plantation has been replaced with a new era of cosmopolitan adventures.

Following a sketch of a Southern Black family’s first excursion into New York, the audience was primed for the third section, Wooding’s short jazz concert. Hearing jazz helped Germans to understand the modernism of the new geography of Black Americans. The conclusion of the program, “Harlem Cabaret” included songs by Adelaide Hall and Evelyn Dove, an “Apache Dance” by the Goinses, and a finale with the entire company.[6] Rather than simply watching performers in the Admiralpalast, the audience was transported to a club like the Nest or Club Alabam.

The Chocolate Kiddies was not the first Black revue to use the idea of geographic movement to situate a political message of cosmopolitan belonging. According to John Howland, Will Marion Cook’s Negro Nuances (1924) used a structure of a “musico-geographic” revue, providing audiences “‘primitive/jungle’ themes, from ‘country’ topics and black folk music of the old South, to a ‘city’ theme that celebrated the contemporary cultural riches of Harlem.”[7]

Progressing through a musical and geographic environment allowed performers to claim not only their present place in the world, but also the past that had been inscribed and circumscribed so thoroughly by others. No longer depicting servile agrarian workers on the plantation, the production created for Germans a narrative of Black urban identity.

Appearing on German stages for the first time, Black veterans, who had once performed a benign antebellum South on American stages, now appeared modern and cosmopolitan. For German audiences, the Black performers and the urban setting were linked. Peter Jelavich has argued that

[i]n the Weimar era the [German] revues demonstrated their cosmopolitan allures not by touting Berlin, but rather by presenting an array of foreign numbers. . . . more often than not they turned to the United States. What Berlin claimed to be before the war, New York seemed to be thereafter: a hectic and mighty metropolis, a global center of production, finance, commerce, and consumerism.[8]

For German audiences, the revue, with its American scenes both North and South, expressed not only racial difference and foreignness, but revealed a country with a people unlike themselves. Further, the production represented Black American’s temporal and geographic distance between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries and, simultaneously, celebrated the distance between the Old Negro minstrel show and the New Negro Renaissance.

Analyzing Raving Delights

Some critics disparaged the revue. One reviewer said the show revealed “the brutality of our lifeless times.” Another critic addressed God directly in his review, stating “Thanks to you that I’m not like them . . . The instruments crow like hens, bellow like bulls, neigh like mares in heat. One has to choose whether to go with Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, or with Sam Wooding” (Behncke, “Sam Wooding,” 218). Other critics loved it. To them, the show was worthy of study. One critic who saw the Hamburg production stated that the music was received with “a degree of enthusiasm that is seldom aroused by domestic artistic efforts. The audience raves, is overwhelmed, beside itself, in what for Hamburgers is a simply shocking manner. This raving delight needs to be analyzed” (218). Zielesch noted the revue’s articulation of a historical and geographical journey:

The dancing and singing finds the Negro at an important part of life, and in this they make their example incredible. “We have our own art, our dances and songs have nothing in common with the dances and music of the wild or semi-wild in Africa,” the performer assured us. In fact, these people have no more relationship than a German or English to Africa. Surrounded by the American civilization, closely connected with it, they have created and preserved their own art.[9]

The message from the performers is clear: a Black American aesthetic needs to be distinguished from any other identity, be it European, American, or African. Importantly, Zielesch takes seriously their claim to speak for a new Black identity, acknowledging that Black culture was more than just performance put on for white spectators:

In America, they have their own choral societies, their own theater, not only in the Negro district, of New York’s Harlem but on Broadway, where the performances are mostly frequented by whites, and where for months they play the same piece. (Zielesch, “Die ‘Schokoladenkinder,’” 3).

In explaining this dichotomy between white and Black Americans, Zielesch introduces the idea that true Black culture is not one in which white audiences partake. Instead, these audiences experience a shadow of the real thing. In her telling, Black people perform music and dance that belong only to them.

Li Zielesch, “Die ‘Schokoladenkinder’ in Zivil,” Berliner Volkszeitung, May 24, 1925, 3.
Fig. 1. Li Zielesch, “Die ‘Schokoladenkinder’ in Zivil,” Berliner Volkszeitung, May 24, 1925, 3. Image courtesy Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, through Art Resource, NY.

Further, she claims, The Chocolate Kiddies created “an operetta of American Negro life with his longings, his childlike piety, his own art, his tragedy and his famous comedy. The operetta music is interspersed with the old across-the-ocean popular folk and plantation songs of the Negro” (3). In a performance for Germans, an audience learning about Black modernism for the first time, the old symbols of the plantation remain a strong mark of distinction. Yet this back and forth between the familiar minstrel and the urban New Negro in the performance highlights a great deal of political uncertainty around Black cultural independence.

Zielesch provides a detailed look at the opening of the revue and the attempt to work out the paradox of the plantation in performance. The first scene, “Plantation at Sundown,” opened with Arthur Payne appearing with the child actor Thelma Drayton sitting on his knee and singing Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe.” This song laments the loss of youth and friends and the promise of life after death:

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,

Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,

Gone from the earth to a better land I know,

I hear their gentle voices calling Old Black Joe.

However, when Payne reaches the last verse, which begins, “Where are the hearts once so happy and so free? / The children so dear that I held upon my knee,” Drayton interrupts, jumping up and dancing across the stage. This early moment in the production is a complex one. At first the production seems squarely situated in a minstrel tradition: Foster’s romanticized song of the antebellum South and Drayton’s pickaninny appearance connects The Chocolate Kiddies to earlier racist productions. Yet ultimately the traditions implode. First, opening the production with “Old Black Joe,” a song about a fading past that underscores the section’s title, “The Plantation at sundown,” implies the end of an era of Black geographic placement. Second, Drayton’s intervention into Foster’s song ruptures the contemplative moment of the romanticized South. The disruption is generational: the child rejects her elder’s reminiscing, replacing it with the present in the form of contemporary music and dance. Although the expectation may have been that the revue would rehash the trend of staging the plantation that existed in Harlem clubs, the show began by showing something new from Black culture to German audiences. By placing Payne’s song first, the performance confirms the twilight of the plantation not only for the character but also for the stage performance.

Despite Zielesch’s earlier understanding that the white audience has limited ownership over Black arts, she revives stereotypes associated with the fantasized plantation. Looking at the singer, Margaret Sims, Zielesch digresses into sexualizing the female performer through a fantasy about Black women. Her description moves from Sims’s clothes, to her body, to an unsettling account of the sexual violence in American history:

Although she has the veiled glow of the Negro glance, she also has the broad nose and beautiful white teeth of the black race and the tall slender legs, but what prevails in her blood is that white ancestor, who exploited the lawlessness of bondage, seizing the beautiful Negress for his own use. (3)

Crediting whiteness for her best qualities, Zielesch converts Sims from a performer on the stage to the locus of a fantasy of her ancestor’s rape. She sees Sims’s physical beauty as typical of Black women, while the white slave master is realized as the active agent that makes Black women truly beautiful.[10] The single-sentence narrative not only identifies rape as a constitutive part of the Black experience of American chattel slavery that robs Black women of their bodily autonomy, but also repeats the violation by recapitulating the narrative for the reader. Hortense Spillers has spoken of this unique “marking” that places Black women’s bodies as “a defenseless target for rape and veneration, and the body, in its material and abstract phase, a resource for metaphor.”[11] For Zielesch, Sims’s body becomes the carrier of whiteness—her true beauty—and Zielesch’s own desire for her.

Zielesch’s denial of Black women’s autonomy reflects the dangers of using the plantation to launch into a Black performance revue. The staged plantation as a prime site of return favors the fantasy realm in which Black women remain the targets of coercive sex. This is even more glaring because her description of Sims’s body and ancestry is the only in-depth description of

any of the performers. Zielesch would show further interest in the hidden truths of the body, when she and her husband, Fritz, conducted a study of their spousal compatibility through a series of divinations, including fortune telling, chiromancy, phrenology, graphology, and astrology.[12] Conducted two years after her review of The Chocolate Kiddies, her pseudoscientific study parallels reading of Sims’s body, where analyzing head or hand size of a spouse as a sign of a proper relationship sits comfortably next to “seeing” the blood inside Sims. Both seek to enforce a narrative that reveal more than what is apparent. In the reading of her and Fritz’s bodies, they sought to find ways the body could divulge not only the present of their lives but their futures. In her telling of the review, Zielesch read Sims’s body for an explanation of her appearance, presuming a past to explain the present.

Even as the plantation formed the basis for moving German audiences to Harlem, The Chocolate Kiddies could not control how tethered audiences would be to the romanticized South. Zielesch’s antebellum nostalgia undercuts the revue’s opening argument that Northern Black people differed demonstrably and culturally from their imagined Southern past. For her, Black women more than Black men—whom she describes as betraying “the blood of their ancestors from Africa”—are the carriers of an American identity. The depiction of Sims’s body as the carrier of whiteness looks to her identity as it is formed not through the program of The Chocolate Kiddies but rather through Zielesch’s extratextual knowledge of the history of race in American chattel slavery. Zielesch’s image of Sims should trouble us enough to think about how even within the performance of The Chocolate Kiddies, sexual violence against Black women is justified for its alleged role in Black beauty. Yet for Zielesch, the historic violation of Black women adds to their entertainment value, making the stage a new and repeated site for the denial of Black women’s personhood.[13]

To German audiences, Black performers symbolized an element of the modern. Yet figurations of minstrelsy remained crucial in representing Black modernity. The Chocolate Kiddies could simultaneously offer themselves as modern by strategically referencing their difference from the “wild and semi-wild of Africa” and through a purposeful staging of contemporary Black cabaret. The German identification with a discourse of Black modernity was problematized by a persisting commitment to notions of Black primitivism. Zielesch’s reading of Sims’s body is a case in point, as it reveals the difficulty in disconnecting the plantation from New Negro arts. The interaction between Black American performers and Germans should strike us not for the way it featured racism as a concomitant force of modernism, but how The Chocolate Kiddies, with its Charleston, jazz music, and Harlem scenery, coexisted with the history of slavery and the traditions of the minstrel.


Notes

[1] See Bernhard H. Behncke, “Sam Wooding and The Chocolate Kiddies at the Thalia-Theater in Hamburg, 25 July 1925 to 24 August 1925,” Storyville 60 (1975): 214–19, 214.

[2] See Art Napoleon, “A Pioneer Looks Back: Sam Wooding 1967,” Storyville 9 (1967): 3–8 and 37–39, 5.

[3] See Shane Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 80–81.

[4] Zielesch, along with her husband Fritz, would be responsible for translating Vicki Baum’s novels to German after Baum’s exile in America. They also reported for many different periodicals, including the popular magazine UHU.

[5] See Joachim Lucchesi, “Hanns Eisler: Jazz as a Weapon” in Jazz and the Germans: Essays on the Influence of “Hot” American Idioms on 20th-Century German Music, ed. Michael J. Budds (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2002), 141–48; Clarence Lusane, Hitler’s Black Victims: The Experiences of European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans (New York: Routledge, 2005),  179–96; Leroy Hopkins, “Louis Douglas and the Reception of Harlemania” in Germans and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange, ed. Larry A. Greene and Anke Ortlepp (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011), 50–69.

[6] See Behncke, “Sam Wooding,” 217–18

[7] John Howland, Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson and the Birth of Concert

Jazz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 115.

[8] Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 169.

[9] Li Zielesch, “Die ‘Schokoladenkinder’ in Zivil,” Berliner Volks-Zeitung, May 24, 1925, 3. Translated by author.

[10] See Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 25.

[11] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64–81, 66.

[12] See Fritz Zielesch and Li Zielesch, “Herr und Frau Zielesch heiraten!” UHU 12 (September, 1927): 64–69.

[13] See Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Routledge, 2008), 7.