Broadway superstar Audra McDonald’s record-setting six Tony Award wins have secured her a special place in the theater history books.
But in Broadway’s “Shuffle Along, Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” beginning Tuesday, she stars as a historical figure so under-the-radar that McDonald describes playing the role as breathing life into “a footnote.”
The peripheral performer is Lottie Gee, a Jazz Age actress who appeared in “Shuffle Along” 95 years ago. The vaudeville revue, featuring an all-black creative team and cast, became a groundbreaking blockbuster on the Great White Way.
The new, longer-titled “Shuffle Along” — written and directed by George C. Wolf and choreographed by Savion Glover — recreates that pioneering production. It also goes backstage to imagine what went on behind the scenes among the artists and others.
That includes composer Eubie Blake, played by Brandon Victor Dixon, who wrote the music; F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, portrayed by Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, who wrote the book and performed in the show; and cast member Noble Sissel, embodied by Joshua Henry.
McDonald portrays Gee and the character she played on stage, Jessie Williams.
In 1921, Daily News critic James Whittaker noted: “When a certain Miss Lottie Gee comes down to the footlights … you will do well to lend an ear. It will be returned to you filled with interest.”
It’s impressive since at age 35, Gee was close to being over the hill, according to McDonald.
“Women of color in that generation could likely expect to live to their 50s,” she says.
From period reviews and news stories, McDonald learned that Gee had a beautiful soprano voice, loved nice clothes, was a bit of a diva and had a torrid affair with Blake.
“That is absolutely explored,” says McDonald, who says Gee was “a kept woman.”
“Otherwise, little is known about Lottie,” says McDonald, 45, who turned to researching stars who were likely influences, including vaudeville queen Aida Overton Walker and actress and blues singer Evelyn Preer.
The dearth of material is “an absolute 180” from Billie Holiday, whom she played in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a role that earned one of her six Tonys and has been filed for HBO. McDonald is taking a leave from “Shuffle Along” this summer to do the play in London.
While Lottie Gee’s light didn’t shine so bright after “Shuffle Along,” the show opened the door for black performers and writers on the stage during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Revisiting the show at this moment is perfect timing, given that Broadway is having a banner year in terms of racial and cultural diversity thanks to shows like “Hamilton,” “Allegiance,” “Eclipsed,” “Hughie,” “The Color Purple” and “On Your Feet!”
“It feels incredible to be a part of this season,” McDonald says while en route to rehearsal at the Music Box on W. 45th. St. “Just our street alone — it’s a very diverse street.”
The word diverse could well be applied to McDonald’s remarkable career, which spans Broadway musicals (“Carousel,” “Ragtime,” “Porgy and Bess”) and plays (“Master Class”), opera, TV (“Private Practice”) and films (“Ricky and the Flash”).
In that sense, playing Lottie Gee could be said to offer the super-successful actress her greatest acting stretch.
“Lottie’s career wasn’t going anywhere,” she says.