Jelly’s Last Jam was to represent the revival of the black musical, which would replace the sad, serious dramas that had dominated Broadway since the early 1970’s. Though it was entertaining, Wolfe’s book also touched two nerves with its audience in its frank exploration of both sex and race. The candid and open depiction of Jelly Roll and Anita’s physical relationship, along with foul language, caught audience members by surprise. W. A. Henry III, writing in Time magazine, observed: “The show takes a long time getting started, ends rather abruptly, and is needlessly vulgar along the way, including a prolonged bout of simulated sexual intercourse at center stage.” Wolfe’s intention was to portray black characters who lived openly and unapologetically, rather than as victims. His use of sexuality to achieve this goal, however, caused reviewers and audience members to shake their heads.
While sex can be shocking, the play’s more controversial and thought-provoking theme was racial prejudice among African Americans. Going beyond the typical racism between whites and African Americans, Jelly’s Last Jam represents in its main character a black man at odds with his own race. A brilliant black musician from the South, Morton tries to pass himself off as white and belittles his own culture. This is the primary sin for which he is judged by Chimney Man. The idea that light-skinned African Americans could discriminate against dark-skinned African Americans and that the difference of a shade or two of coloring could be the basis for prejudice was thought-provoking. Critic Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic,Intraracial class prejudice among blacks is sometimes related to shades of skin color. . . . But instead of dealing with issues of race or the resentments that blacks feel toward whites, Wolfe concentrates on how his hero’s loyalties and prejudices, if not his musical tastes, are determined by family background.