Pearl Primus in "Strange Fruit"
The Library for the Performing Arts’s exhibition on political cabaret focuses on the three series associated with Isaiah Sheffer, whose Papers are in the Billy Rose Theatre Division. It begins with a section introducing the genre from its 1930s-1940s roots in New York, with songs, sketch comedy, and dance artifacts, also based in LPA’s archival collections. The repeal of Prohibition brought new or re-opened spaces where audiences could enjoy theater, dance or music while purchasing legal drinks for those who, in the Depression, could afford them. Political cabaret became popular at the end of the decade, created by writers, songwriters, comics, musicians and dancers, many of whom were veterans of Federal Theatre Project companies. Two important venues from those years were the TAC Cabaret (at the Firehouse) and Barney Josephson's Cafe Society.
The most famous and memorable song from New York pre-WWII political cabaret scene was Lewis Allan’s anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit,” which has been recognized as one of the most influential American song. Allan, the pen name of teacher Abel Meeropol, was a frequently contributor to the TAC Cabarets, most often in collaboration with Earl Robinson. For more on their “The House I Live In,” please see my Sinatra exhibition blog. “Strange Fruit” is best known now through the recording by Billie Holiday, who featured the song in her performances at Café Society.
Pearl Primus, trained in Anthropology and at NY’s left-wing New Dance Group Studio, chose to use the lyrics only (without music) as a narrative for her choreography which debuted at her first recital, February 1943, at the 92nd St. YMHA. She later included it in her performances at Barney Josephson’s jazz club/cabaret Café Society, which this photograph promoted. Primus chose to create the abstract, modern dance in the character of a white woman, part of the crowd that had watched the lynching. She later wrote:
“The dance begins as the last person begins to leave the lynching ground and the horror of what she has seen grips her, and she has to do a smooth, fast roll away from that burning flesh.” —Pearl Primus on Strange Fruit, Five Evenings with American Dance Pioneers: Pearl Primus, April 29th, 1983 .
“Instead of growing twisted like a gnarled tree inside myself, I am able to dance out my anger and my frustrations. Yes, I have danced about lynchings, protested in dance against Jim Crow cars and systems which created sharecropping. I have attacked racial prejudices in all forms…” —Pearl Primus, Dance Magazine, November 1968.
The solo has been reconstructed and can be seen on Free to Dance, in performance from the American Dance Festival and John F. Kennedy Center, 2000, on *MGZIDVD 5-3178. An extended interview with Primus, Evening 3 of Five Evenings with American Dance Pioneers can be viewed or streamed at The Library for the Performing Arts. Additional oral histories and tapes of performance can be found at the Library for the Performing Arts and the Schomburg Center.
For more information on Primus, her career and choreography, see The Dance Claimed Me (P Bio S) by Peggy and Murray Schwartz, Yale University Press, 2012.
This blog, and the Political Cabaret exhibition, was informed by research by the Performing Arts Museum's summer interns: Brittany Camacho, Colorado College, and Kameshia Shepherd, Bank Street College of Education, Program in Museum Education.