There is a scene in Stumptown Stages’ ebullient world-premiere musical Bojangles of Harlem where Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (Jarran Muse) sings and tap dances atop a staircase that has risen out of the stage. He’s so high up that you’re forced to focus on his feet, which remain at the audience’s eye level as they patter and bounce.
After basking in the beauty of Muse’s dancing, I realized that seeing Bojangles of Harlem was the most fun I’d had at a theater in over a year. Between Muse’s galaxy-sized charisma, Quincy Pronker’s gloriously colorful costume concepts (carried out by costume designer Margaret Louise Chapman), Michael Thomas Murray’s buoyant original music and lyrics, co-creator Eric Winer’s lyrics, conceiver and director Christopher George Patterson’s choreography, and Adam Bock’s orchestrations, the play leaves you feeling so high that you want to lace up a pair of tap shoes and follow in Robinson’s nimble footsteps.
Of course, no one can be Bill Robinson; he was inimitable.
Born in 1878, he achieved vaudeville and Hollywood superstardom, perfecting a now-iconic dancing style defined by flying feet and limited upper-body movement. He was so beloved—by both Black and white audiences—that he eventually became an honorary mayor of Harlem and and Congress passed a resolution designating his birthday National Tap Dance Day.
When it comes to Robinson, separating myth from man can be slippery. He made dubious claims—including that he invented the word “copacetic” and came up with the “stair dance” seen in Bojangles of Harlem while being honored by the King of England—but that’s part of his enduring appeal. His tendency to self-mythologize created the image of a man who was both a master of tap and an irresistibly unknowable deity.
Like its subject, Bojangles of Harlem blurs the line between truth and fiction.
Written by Darren Ross, the play begins after Robinson’s death in 1949, but he clearly isn’t done with the mortal world. Joking that he’s only been “resting in peace,” he returns to tell his story, surrounded by a Greek chorus of singers and dancers who chide him when he exaggerates or omits details from his life.
Bojangles of Harlem spotlights Robinson’s relationships with Fannie Clay (Shelese Franklin), the wife he loved and left, Shirley Temple (Voni Kengla), his frequent film costar, and Marty Forkins (Jared Lingle), the manager who mentored him for over 40 years. All three characters help shape Robinson’s role as a boundary breaker—and his emergence as the highest-paid Black entertainer of his lifetime.
While the bonds between Robinson and these characters are interesting, the play is at its best when it ascends into the realm of spectacle, borne aloft by those bedazzling costumes. As Robinson, Muse wears a virtual runway of wonders, including a white pinstriped suit with a black vest and a crimson tuxedo with streaming tails that proves to be the perfect outfit for his first performance of his stair dance. Each outfit is an extension of his exuberance, a testament to the idea of clothes as communication.
Clothes don’t just convey happiness in Bojangles of Harlem. When Lena Horne (Cory Williams) performs the title song from the 1943 musical Stormy Weather—in which she starred with Robinson and Cab Calloway—her dark-purple dress matches the melancholy mood of the lyrics:
Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all the time
Those words are doubly haunting, because Horne sings them as Robinson’s relationship with Clay is crumbling under the weight of his absence and infidelity. As if that weren’t tragic enough, Bojangles of Harlem completes the scene with massive strips of cloth that are the same color as Horne’s dress. They ripple across the stage with funereal grace, deepening the idea of a marriage submerged in a sea of sadness.
Robinson’s journey from tormented child to thriving wunderkind to decadent celebrity mirrors many biographical films, including Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and Walk the Line. That may have been inevitable—recurring themes can’t help haunting the lives of geniuses—but the boundary between the coincidental and the unimaginative is worth contemplating.
If art makes men as different as Bill Robinson, Freddie Mercury, Elton John and Johnny Cash seem eerily similar, what does that say about the people telling their stories? Perhaps that to try to encompass an entire life is to risk draining that life of individuality. After all, most people’s lives are written not in milestones, but in intimate moments left out of obituaries and Wikipedia entries.
I would be interested to see a more experimental portrait of Robinson—perhaps one that investigated a few days, rather than his entire existence, or dealt more with his work as an activist, such as his fundraising efforts on behalf of the Negro Actors Guild of America That said, I remain grateful for the existence of Bojangles of Harlem, because it brings Robinson to life so vividly and beautifully that it’s hard to believe he’s truly gone.
In a way, he’s not—he’s alive in the feet, voice, and soul of the irresistibly confident Muse. “Sure am cute, ain’t I?” Robinson says when he beholds his younger self (Jermarcus Riggins). It’s a line Muse delivers with likably cocky flair, confirming that Bill Robinson loves Bill Robinson. Can you blame him?
- Stumptown Stages’ premiere production of “Bojangles of Harlem: The Bill Robinson Musical” continues through Oct. 30 in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Tickets and scheduling information: https://www.portland5.com/winningstad-theatre/events/bojangles-harlem.