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Interview With an Author: Caseen Gaines

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Caseen Gaines and his latest book, Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way
Author Caseen Gaines and his latest book, Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way. Photo credit: Johanna Calle

Caseen Gaines is an author, director, educator, and popular culture historian. He holds a Master's Degree from Rutgers University in American Studies, where he focused on racial representations in popular culture. In addition to writing, he directs theater and teaches literature and writing, drama, journalism, and a course on race at a high school in New Jersey, where he lives. His latest book is Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Footnotes?

Footnotes is a group biography of Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles, the artists behind the 1921 Broadway hit Shuffle Along. Initially, I was interested in looking at the continuing issues around representation and diversity on Broadway, but I kept being pulled toward the story of Shuffle Along. Through history, I was able to raise many issues that persist today, not only on Broadway but in American society more broadly.

How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Footnotes?

Footnotes took about four years to research and write.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing(s) that you learned about Eubie Blake, Aubrey Lyles, Flournoy Miller, Noble Sissle, and/or any of the many people involved in the creation or production of Shuffle Along during your research?

The more I learned about their lives, the more fascinating I found each of the book’s subjects; however, what surprised me most was learning that Langston Hughes chose to attend Columbia University because he wanted to go to New York and see Shuffle Along. He credits Sissle, Blake, Miller, and Lyles with singlehandedly starting the Harlem Renaissance, which is an amazing statement that points to the impact these artists had on that major cultural movement.

Do you have a favorite of the songs from Shuffle Along?

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but “Bandana Days” is a really excellent example of Noble Sissle’s characteristically snappy lyrics. If you listen to the right recording of the song, you can hear how seamlessly he and Eubie Blake worked together to create magic.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how Shuffle Along is mostly forgotten, even by people steeped in Broadway/theatre history, while other plays from the same era continue to be reimagined in new productions (in spite of equally outmoded/dated content)? Do you think we’ll ever see a contemporary production of Shuffle Along as audiences would have seen it when it took Broadway by storm in 1921?

There are several reasons why Shuffle Along is largely forgotten, and I explore many of them in Footnotes. For different reasons, by the 1950s there were incentives for both Black and white audiences to pretend this show didn’t exist. So much of what made that show revolutionary was integrated into the bloodstream of musical theater, Shuffle Along’s influence was forgotten. Additionally, there were several racially stereotypical elements to the show, even though it was progressive in a lot of ways, that led to its erasure and the unlikelihood that it will ever be staged in its original iteration.

On a completely different subject, I’d like to ask you a question about Back to the Future. You are the author of We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy. As the author of the book, and, I’m guessing, a fan of the film series, do you think Universal Studios should release the footage that was shot with actor Eric Stoltz or should it stay in the vaults?

As a Back to the Future fan, I’d love to see the Eric Stoltz footage, but I don’t think that will happen anytime soon!

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Xio Axelrod’s The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Rod Serling
August Wilson
James Baldwin
George Orwell
Ta-Nehisi Coates

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I grew up devouring R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, but I think the first book I was obsessed with was The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

What an interesting question. I don’t think so, but I read quite a few books in college that they’d probably have lots of questions about!

Is there a book you’ve faked reading?

I had a professor in college who was in love with Madame Bovary, and I honestly think he invertedly made me resistant to reading it. I was assigned to read it for a few of his courses, but I sort of had a sense that he would just enthusiastically talk about it and not have us weigh in. My bet paid off and I got away with pretending I had read it.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen has a simple, yet arresting, cover that probably contributed to me buying it.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are two, and coincidentally, it’s the specifically the second edition of both of these books—Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann’s The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang. They are two excellent books that taught me that you can write about popular culture in an entertaining, yet serious way. I owe my work to those examples.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I really love Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and whenever I find out someone hasn’t read it, I push the book onto them. I also think Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power is essential reading, and since it’s not as well-known as Between the World and Me, I’m often talking that book up as well.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

George Orwell’s 1984 and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, two very different books, both come to mind. I enjoyed reading them both so much, I didn’t want them to end. I’ve gone back to both of them several times, but nothing beats that first read.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’m pretty easily impacted by art, but Ava DuVerney’s When They See Us on Netflix really left a strong impression on me.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

The perfect day probably involves me doing a little work (I enjoy feeling productive!) and having a largely clear day to read and/or catch up on some television. Any day when I can read over a hundred pages for pleasure is a beautiful day.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Oh, I don’t know if I’ve ever hoped I’d be asked a question. Since I’ve written so much about film and television, I suppose I’m surprised I’ve never been asked if I would ever want to write for the screen. The answer, of course, is yes! I’ve had some interesting ideas. Maybe something will come of them someday.

What are you working on now?

Writing Footnotes was such a great reminder that there are countless Black Americans who have been denied their proper place in history. I’m in the early stages of working on another story that uplifts a largely forgotten, yet incredibly influential, person from our past.

Book cover for Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way
Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way
Gaines, Caseen