More Than Chitlins on the Chitlin’ Circuit
As scholar L.H. Stallings suggest, the Chitlin’ Circuit allowed artists and audiences to push beyond the socially approved parameters of Blackness, including within the context of sexuality: “Though the chitlin’ circuit and its sister avenues, traveling tent shows and the TOBA did not explicitly perform for sexually queer audiences, they did address the needs of Black people consistently ascribed to the realms of non-heternormativity.” That particular connection with the audience also allowed performers to remain in touch with the daily struggles of their fans and supporters, an element that was critical for the success of the Civil Rights Movement.
Sadly this is a story that continues to be under-valued and dis-remembered, as the pejorative meaning of the Chitlin’ Circuit often causes some Blacks to dismiss this history as inconsequential to contemporary Black culture, or worse, as a stereotypical reminder of a more difficult Black past.
Early stalwarts of the Chitlin Circuit like Lincoln Perry aka “Steppin Fechit” and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson often channeled their earnings from the circuit into support for social and political causes in Black communities. Well known Harlem-based racketeer Casper Holstein was an early patron of the Harlem Renaissance, as was A’Lelia Walker, daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, whose hair-care empire was, in part, dependent on the economic success of the Chitlin Circuit. The extra-legal and illicit activities found on the Chitlin Circuit often allowed promoters and artists to develop a level of relative wealth in which they could more directly address Black racial progress. At its height, the Civil Rights Movement could take advantage of social networks that had been long established by the Chitlin Circuit.
Perhaps, the best contemporary reminder of the Chitlin’ Circuit is the career trajectory of film-maker and producer Tyler Perry. When Perry began to write, direct and produce plays for Black Christian audiences in the mid-1990s, he tapped into a version of the Chitlin Circuit that existed in the 1980s that supported Black musicals and plays such as Vy Higginson’s Mama I Want to Sing, Thomas Meloncon’s Diary of Black Men, and Shelly Garrett’s original stage play Beauty Shop. Though Perry’s directorial skills as a filmmaker, deservedly leaves many wanting, his genius may in re-animating the power Chitlin Circuit as a viable business model for Blacks.