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The “chitlin’ circuit” is the collective name given to the string of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the United States that were
safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform in during the age of racial segregation in the United States (from at least the early 19th century through the 1960’s) as well as the venues that contemporary African American soul and blues performers, especially in the South, continue to appear at regularly. The name derives from the soul food item chitterlings (stewed pig intestines) and is also a play on the term “Borscht Belt” which referred to a group of venues (primarily in New York’s Catskill Mountains) popular with Jewish performers during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.
Noted theaters on the chitlin’ circuit included the Royal Peacock in Atlanta; the Carver Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama; the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise and the Apollo Theater in New York City; Robert’s Show Lounge, Club DeLisa and the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore; the Fox Theatre in Detroit; the Victory Grill in Austin, Texas; the Hippodrome Theatre in Richmond, Virginia; the Ritz Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida; and The Madam C. J. Walker Theatre on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis.
The song “Tuxedo Junction” was written about a stop along the chitlin’ circuit in Birmingham. Once the performance was over, the band would leave for the next stop on the circuit. When the lyrics were ready to be added, Erskine Hawkins explained the reason for the title to Buddy Feyne who then created lyrics to match the meaning.
Many notable performers worked on the chitlin’ circuit, including Count Basie, Peg Leg Bates, George Benson, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Lena Horne, Etta James, B.B. King, Patti LaBelle, Bernie Mac, Moms Mabley, The Delfonics, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Wilson Pickett, Richard Pryor, Otis Redding, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Ike & Tina Turner, The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, The Supremes, The Temptations, Tammi Terrell, Muddy Waters, Flip Wilson and Jimmie Walker.
Mississippi Blues Trail Marker
The second historic marker designated by the Mississippi Blues Commission on the Mississippi Blues Trail was placed in front of the Southern Whispers Restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville, Mississippi, a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the early days of the blues. The marker commemorates the importance of this site in the history of the development of the blues in Mississippi. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, this historic strip drew crowds to the flourishing club scene to hear Delta blues, big band jump blues and jazz.
Ebony magazine prefers the term “urban theater circuit” for recent work like that of playwright and actor Tyler Perry. In a January 2004 interview with Perry, the genre’s leading practitioner, Ebony wrote that his work marked
“a new chapter in the urban theater circuit as a whole—a genre that has been dogged by criticism from some Blacks in the traditional theater. Perry, as the most visibly recognized player in the circuit, has felt the brunt of this criticism.” ‘They say that Tyler Perry has set the Black race back some 500 years with these types of “chitlin’ circuit” shows. The problem with the naysayers is that they don’t take the opportunity to see my shows,’ Perry argues. ‘With my shows, I try to build a bridge that marries what’s deemed “legitimate theater” and so-called “chitlin’ circuit theater,” and I think I’ve done pretty well with that, in bringing people in to enjoy a more elevated level of entertainment.