Jitterbug! by D.C. Copeland | Script Revolution


A young black entertainer teams up with a "Copper Colored Gal" from the Cotton Club to win a dance contest at the Savoy Ballroom. Unfortunately, their competition will stop at nothing to win, including murder.



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Based On: 
True events.

The time is spring, 1931. The place, Harlem. BILLY RHYTHM, the quintessential American who never gives up, has returned a failure. He had been away trying to make it as a dancer on the Theatre Owners Booking Association circuit, the Negro Vaudeville, but the Depression wasn’t cooperating. He ignores his failure by dancing into the “Land of Darkness” where he has a chance encounter with a tall, beautiful woman. THARBIS will haunt his dreams until he sees her again.

First stop is the Comedy Club, a front for a gambling house, located behind the Lafayette Theatre off Lenox Avenue. He finds his old friend CANDY there and his nemesis, HERBERT WHITE, founder of his gang, the Jolly Fellows (and later the world famous Lindy Hoppers). White is furious with Billy for leaving his fold without his blessing at a time when they needed his dancing skills. He puts Billy “on ice” with the gang. Without a gang to help and protect him, life in Harlem will become harder. But Candy secretly helps him find a place to live. MISS THELMA, the landlord who rents him a bed in her tenement, and her boarders will become a sounding board for his dreams and a compass for his heart.

In his effort to find work, he goes from one Harlem nightspot to another but can’t find any work thanks to the Jolly Fellows. Desperate, Billy summons all of his courage and confronts Bojangles playing pool at the Comedy Club. The Jolly Fellows want to kill him then and there but Bojangles, upon hearing he’s a dancer, opts to give him a chance to live by challenging him to “trade fours” in the back room of the Comedy Club. This small room was known to dancers as the “Hoofer’s Club,” the unacknowledged headquarters of American tap dance from the 1920’s through the 40’s. To everyone’s surprise Billy manages to hold his own against the greatest tap dancer of all time. Bojangles gives Billy his blessing and his business card and tells him to check out the Cotton Club.

With Bojangles help, Billy is sent to the Cotton Club where he lands a gig and enters a world of gangland violence and finds love. He meets an unknown 22-year-old named CAB CALLOWAY who has just replaced DUKE ELLINGTON at the club. And a hip young Jewish composer working for the mob named HAROLD ARLEN who has a national hit on the radio called “Get Happy!” Billy also finds the girl of his dreams. Tharbis is one of the “Copper Colored Gals” who dances in the chorus line. They team up to compete in a dance contest sponsored by the Cotton Club for “all of Harlem.”

But their fictional lives are touched by the ugly reality of the city and its times. Nightly funeral processions behind horse drawn carts will carry their dead friends and foretell one of their futures. Black and white gangland violence permeates the city, the only difference between the two is in the matter in which it is carried out: one chooses a knife, the other a machine gun. Knowing this is their future, Billy and Tharbis step out of the funeral procession and close the 1st Act alone on stage, dancing to Irving Berlin's “Let's Face the Music and Dance.”

Billy and Tharbis enter the contest at the Savoy Ballroom under threat from White and the Jolly Fellows. CHICK WEBB has just wiped young Calloway’s band off the double-bandstand adding electricity to the already highly charged atmosphere. The Savoy is packed. Even OWNEY MADDEN and BIG FRENCHY DEMANGE, mobster owners of the Cotton Club, have come to see the dance contest. The dance floor is alive with desperate dancers hoping to win the $500.00 cash prize but only two couples will meet in the final showdown: Billy and Tharbis, who represent the Cotton Club and are expected by their mob bosses to win, and SHORTY SNOWDEN and BIG BEA, legendary jitterbug dancers representing the Jolly Fellows. When Billy and Tharbis start throwing in new and rarely seen “air steps,” White orders the Jolly Fellows standing on the sidelines to slash and cut Billy and Tharbis with knives and razors as they pass. Bleeding, their clothes shredded, Billy and Tharbis dig deeper and pull out dance steps that are so mind blowing that they win over not only the crowd, but the Jolly Fellows too. Still, winning the dance contest isn’t enough. Finding their exit blocked as they try to leave the Savoy by both black and white gangsters, Billy and Tharbis, barely able to stand, bravely stand up one more time to White and Big Frenchy DeMange with a few well chosen words that shock and inspire the crowd to help them escape. Staggering onto the sidewalk, clutching the money they won, and holding on and supporting each other, Billy and Tharbis walk unsteadily—but hopefully—happily-- into the black Harlem night.

Submitted: May 11, 2017
Last Updated: May 24, 2023

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The Writer: D.C. Copeland

Hello, thanks for taking a look at who I am. Hopefully you aren't here because you were “misdirected,” that you want to find out more about just who this D.C. Copeland is after reading one of my loglines. I'm an artist, a muralist, and a writer whose canvases and stories are for the most part writ large across time and space. While in college at the University of Miami , I co-founded Ecology Action of Florida . That sense of saving the environment can be found in many of my works. While creating works of art and fiction, I supported myself and my family as the Warner Bros Pictures Florida Field Rep for Publicity and Promotion for nearly 20-years. During that time I got to know many... Go to bio

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