Johnny Hudgins will seem an unlikely candidate for Harlem Renaissance Man honors. Blackface comic dancer, with absurd white-paint grin glowing against tar-blackened face, here’s a pantomimist almost completely lost to cultural history. And yet there he was! At the height of his fame a showstopper at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater.
Hudgins was the painter Romare Bearden’s number one “favorite of all the comedians”—the oversize clown-shoe dancer whose smooth silent performances on an empty stage, the artist said, helped show him what to do with an empty canvas. Master of the Charleston and other black dances that became worldwide sensations, Hudgins, nicknamed “The Black Charlie Chaplin,” was an important model for Josephine Baker’s early cross-eyed comic performance styles— Jo Baker who also sometimes performed in blackface. Johnny Hudgins was popular in Europe before La Baker or sax master Sidney Bechet went there, and became a hit throughout the Americas, from Harlem to Cuba and South America. He starred in an important early science fiction movie (French) as well as in filmic “short subjects” of the 1920s and 30s. He took a major Broadway choreographer to court for daring to steal his style of improvisation—and won his case!
Who was this man? How do we square the solid foundation of the Harlem Renaissance with the boomeranging ovals and circles of blackface comic dance? This talk will feature clips of the dancer, images from his extensive scrapbooks, and a live musical surprise.