‘Voodoo Macbeth’ and How 1930s Art Crossed Divides

The following essay is a guest blog post by L. A. Chandlar, author of the Art Deco Mystery Series who will be at BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM to read from, discuss, and sign her latest entry in the series, The Pearl Dagger.

My favorite thing about writing the Art Deco Series, is bringing to life the vibrancy, humor and adventurous spirit of the 1930s. That era is often overshadowed by the Depression, but there was so much art, civil rights, humor, and liveliness going on in spite of the hardship. The theme of beauty out of ashes was profound to me. That’s the story I wanted to tell, because that vivacious way of life has something to teach us today.

Art is in the background of each of my novels and in this one, I discovered a work that was a seminal point for art and history and most importantly, for humanity. In 1936, a youthful Orson Welles in tandem with the Federal Works Project formed the first all-black theater cast. They performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth with both professional actors as well as amateur. Despite the incendiary race relations outside the doors, inside the Lafayette theater they performed an eerie, poignant play that was wildly successful. It was sold-out for weeks then toured the country. This was Voodoo Macbeth.

In The Pearl Dagger, many of the characters are moved by the play, but Lane’s love interest, Finn Brodie, is especially affected since it reflected aspects of his own life and some of the ghosts of his past that he must face when the possibility of a crime syndicate rising from the ashes forces them to take an investigative trip across the Atlantic to London. I even have a culmination adventure scene at an actual performance of Voodoo with the real-life actors in attendance. I would do anything to be able to go back in time to witness a show.

Voodoo Macbeth wasn’t the only way that art transcended the divides and barriers of the races in the thirties. There are more examples than I could ever possibly share, but a favorite one is that my characters often dance at the uptown club, The Savoy. With its four-thousand capacity hall and double stages at either end so the music never stopped, it was the first intentionally integrated dance hall featuring Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, and numerous other Jazz and Big Band greats. A Jewish dance hall owner partnered with a black manager to create a place where inside the doors, it didn’t matter if you were black or white, uptown or downtown, Catholic or Jewish. All that mattered was if you could dance. The place was sold out with a line four blocks long the night it opened and stayed that way for years. There’s a famous conversation that I highlighted in my book where in real life someone saw a celebrity walk in. The guy says to his friend, “Hey, Clark Gable just walked in.” His friend looks over and says, “Oh. Can he dance?” Dance was all that mattered.

The power of art is staggering. It draws people together and reminds us of the goodness that is possible. In our own rocky climate, it makes the joy of telling these stories even more wonderful. My favorite quote about the way art overcame the racial tensions of the day was from a woman who danced the night away at The Savoy hundreds of times. In an interview of the documentary Savoy King, with shining eyes she exclaimed, “We fought a war…with music and dance!”

One of my most beloved characters whom readers ask me about all the time, is Lane’s artistic Aunt Evelyn. She actually represents a few artist friends I have in New York City. Aunt Evelyn is a funny mix of high class socialite with eccentric, worldly artist. She has friends in all places high and low. My real-life friends who are successful artists, have this wonderful capacity to draw people to themselves who would otherwise not have anything in common. It’s the art that compels them to unity. One time, I walked into my friend’s studio. He is Japanese American and surrounding him was the most disparate group of men I’d ever seen: a Hispanic college kid with torn jeans, an older white man with a three-piece suit straight from Wall Street, and a middle-aged guy dressed in glorious drag complete with matching shoes and purse. All four of them were enthralled in close discussion. I loved it! This is why Aunt Evelyn is the way she is. (Plus, she enables to me to have fabulous cameo appearances from the first lady, to Diego Rivera, to Albert Einstein.)

Many of my characters were real people, with real lives, real weaknesses and strengths. I am enamored with the way art transcends social and cultural divides. It’s such a joy to share these stories. My dearest hope is that my readers will be inspired and that the joy of the adventure –even in the midst of hard times—will help them believe they can create their own beauty out of ashes.

Hear more from L. A. Chandlar when she stops by BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM for our Place & Crime Panel where she’ll be joined by the likes of Mark Coggins and Heather Harper Ellet for a discussion on setting in each of their new titles.

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