From the early 1900s until the 1970s, the American South experienced the largest wave of internal migration in history. The collapsed infrastructure and economy of a post-Reconstruction South invited a particular vulnerability to corruption, lawlessness, terrorist organizations and intense economic strife, all of which helped to fuel racial hysteria, societal desperation and widespread violence.
A seemingly perfect storm of events that included World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, the automobile, oil and West Coast agriculture booms, and a diminished immigrant workforce from a war-torn Europe opened hundreds of thousands of manufacturing and labor jobs outside of the South.
Expanding and lucrative industries seeking workers willing to labor for cheap sought to capitalize on the crisis in the South, and company representatives were regularly sent to the region in an effort to persuade residents to relocate, often needing as little as a one-way bus ticket to convince them. More than 20 million Southerners left their homes during those years, bound for the Midwest, West Coast and Northeast in what is known today as the “Southern Diaspora.”
Among the cultural effects were the spread of Southern culinary traditions and, perhaps most significantly, rock ’n’ roll, blues, jazz, country, bluegrass and gospel.
Of the nearly 7 million black Southerners that took part in the multi-decade exodus, the largest number arrived in New York City, ultimately settling in Harlem after facing strong racial discrimination in Manhattan.
By the 1940s, Harlem’s black community accounted for nearly 80 percent of the neighborhood’s population. Parallel to the migration, a phenomenon now known as the Harlem Renaissance began to emerge in the forms of music, literature, visual arts, fashion, dance and theater.
Today, it’s a period in history remembered as one of the greatest explosions of cultural, social and artistic influence in New York City’s history, setting off waves throughout the country that still resonate in American culture.
Among the many contributions, Dixieland jazz and ragtime music were brought to the mainstream, thanks in large part to the development of the slide piano-playing style and the popularity of artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Jelly Roll Morton, Willie Smith and Fats Waller.
Taking its name from one of Waller’s most popular records, the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is set during that momentous period and enlisted Waller as its posthumous composer.
Created by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr., the original 1978 production uses much of Fats Waller’s catalog to tell the story of jazz and ragtime’s introduction to the City That Never Sleeps. The history-based musical traces the network of players, singers and composers as they circulated from the electric underground clubs along Harlem’s Lenox Avenue to New York’s whites-only nightclubs and dinner theaters to the private after-parties hosted by some of the city’s wealthiest elites.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” comes to the Lowcountry courtesy of Midtown Productions under the direction of Sheri Grace Wenger, with musical direction by Howard Brown. The production will showcase the work of local musicians and performers, including multi-award-winning actor/singer/dancer/musician Manny Houston, Monique Waters, Tierney Breedlove, Jairus McClanahan and Megan Pue, who also serves as choreographer. Set and lighting design is by Ryan Ahlert.
The show will run Thursday through Saturday, with a special Sunday matinee finale March 5, at Midtown Cabaret Theatre, located inside the Duvall Events Center at 2816 Azalea Drive. Tapas plates and desserts will be available for purchase at the bar, as well as beer, wine, soft drinks and a signature cocktail.
Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. March 2-4, and one Sunday matinee at 5 p.m. March 5. Tickets are $35/adults; $30/seniors (over 65) and military; $25/students and teachers with ID. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to www.MidtownProductions.org, www.Etix.com, or call 843-557-1163.