The Playgoer: Minstrelsy in the US, now and then

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Minstrelsy in the US, now and then

by Kevin Byrne

My final posting, oh how the days do fly by, examines some contemporary productions in New York City that use blackface, mostly in an effort to challenge the racism of society and culture. Their aims are similar to the productions from fifty-years previous mentioned in yesterday's missive.

In addition to the shows mentioned in this post, I could include: The Dance: A History of American Minstrelsy, The Mammy Project, Disposable Men, Southern Promises, and Jump Jim Crow (2008). My list is not exhaustive.

Before delving into this type of production, I would like to detour into the Wooster Group's Emperor Jones, which featured a blackfaced Kate Valk in the title role. (The Wooster Group's tinkering with blackface and minstrel conventions stretches back to their controversial Our Town/Pigmeat Markham mash-up Route 1 & 9 of the early 1980s.) There are a lot of pitfalls in staging O'Neill's 1920 play about an African American dictator of a exotic island whose attempt at escape descends into a Jungian nightmare. The play is mostly a monologue by Jones, written in some incredibly stilted, minstrelized dialect. What I appreciated about the production is that it overemphasized the materiality and falsity of the language through melodic over-accentuation of each individual word (countervailing the supposed "naturalness" O'Neill strove for), just as it overemphasized the blackface of Valk-as-Jones. The production didn't engage in larger social issues, but it did undercut the scripts racialized precepts.

The problems I have with many contemporary shows which employ blackface and minstrelsy is that they do so for the sake of easy theatrical shocks, without acknowledging the complexities of the racisms they condemn nor referencing the elaborate, twisted history of the form. For example, The Lynch Play and Jump Jim Crow (2009) were painfully earnest productions that were ultimately frustrating and limiting. The shows were intended as cultural critiques that exposed the racism of US society; due to an over-reliance on blackface and minstrelsy as spectacle, they rarely advanced a message more sophisticated than Racism is Bad. The Lynch Play even enforced a segregated seating policy—it was a cheap tactic for raising issues of racial boundaries. Jump Jim Crow began with a group of African American actors embodying black stereotypes in a minstrel show-setting, only to have them reject their roles and be replaced by whites (from the audience!). The show relied on the mere use of blackface as a substitute for a social message. By de-historicizing minstrelsy—and even racism—these productions fail to address the complicated mixture of racism and pleasure that the money-making and product-generating minstrel show trafficked in. Through the lazy use of blackface as shock tactic and the simplistic message about racism being evil, the shows, paradoxically, endorsed a political quietude. These productions wanted to capture the rage of the 1960s shows by Baraka and Kennedy, but such fist shaking is not enough. Few of them really understood the history they were critiquing.

The two productions I want to end with are Neighbors and Scottsboro Boys, which were running at the same time this past spring in theatres a few blocks away from each other. Neighbors is about a family of minstrel stereotypes that moves into a suburban enclave next door to a mixed-race family, and the chaos which ensues when they interact. It was, indeed, a messy show, but also a provocative and challenging one, bursting with irresolvable ideas. Before seeing it, I worried about the dangers in humanizing stereotypes and giving them psychological motivations and familial biographies. But the show, in its most brilliant moments, allowed the characters to display the seductive, dangerous, and deeply angry allure of minstrelsy without making them easily pathetic or sympathetic. It recognized the dark history of the form, and let neither itself nor its audience off the hook through empathy or simplistic moralizing.

I'd like to finish with the musical Scottsboro Boys, which is headed to Broadway in a few months. The story is based on a series of actual court cases in the 1930s, in which a group of African Americans were falsely convicted of raping two white women on a train travelling through Alabama. The musical, with a predominantly African American male cast, presents this story through the format of the minstrel show, and it employed all the characteristics of minstrelsy that I discussed earlier: songs, dances, costumes, blackface makeup. I set the show in contrast to Neighbors to emphasize a particular, troubling dualism: whereas Neighbors brought stereotypes closer to real people, Scottsboro Boys flattened a collection of real individuals with awful histories into caricatures.

The production team seemed to pride themselves on their ability to shock their audience with the use of minstrel tropes, and patted themselves on the back for their bold stances. But the implicit message of the show, how it tries to be enjoyable for the audience, is incredibly smug to the point of offensiveness. The distancing of the audience from the action onstage says: isn't to great that they are not us, that we're not in the racist South of the 1930s. The show forces the audience to see the people, and the time, and the problems, as caricatures. I'm sure that it made sense to the creators to tell this story through a minstrel show; it seemed somehow "natural" to do so. But the connections are facile and cheap, and such a presentation does a disservice to these people and the horrific suffering they endured.

In her recent history In Search of the Blues, Marybeth Hamilton touches upon the Scottsboro case. Olen Montgomery, one of the defendants, wrote songs while in prison; the lyrics to his Lonesome Jailhouse Blues were published in a Popular Front newspaper. "If I live, I'm going to be the Blues King," he wrote to his lawyer. None of his individuality, artistry, or loneliness made it into the show.

OK, this scholar will be returning to his corner now.


cgeye said...

I wonder if anyone's documented the slaveship reenactments at least one black group did in the 1980s....

circles said...

I respectfully disagree with you about Scottsboro Boys, which I just saw a week ago in its current pre-Broadway run in Minneapolis. I found the show's use of minstrelsy incredibly effective, at once moving and haunting. You see the white Interlocuter's power producing the caricatures, which are never complete...the play ends with these men escaping their caricatures, when out of sheer disgust they wipe off their makeup and refuse the Interlocuter's demands. We feel that the events we have just seen have been the last straw--and are rewarded with the Rosa Parks ending (one of those rewarding moments in the theatre where you feel the audience gasp in realization).

Though, perhaps the production has changed since its Off-Broadway run?

Anonymous said...

This play is genius! Kander and Ebb at their best.It is a horrible, true story. All the facts cannot be told in 1hr 45min, educate yourself on the famous law case.It points straight to the bigots of the world..Visit the Scottsboro Boys Museum in Scottsboro, Alabama a wonderful tribute of books and other collectibles from the case.The boys are alive again, thanks to these two Broadway legends! The offBroadway play and museum opened about the same time not knowing about each other! Divine intervention!Check it out online and donate to keep their memories alive!They were just boys...the play does not mention Judge Horton who was a hero in that awful time but his memory lives on also.Go see this wonderful play with lots of talented actors. Their singing and dancing is incredible! Tonys all around! I cried and laughed, Kander, Ebb, Stroman, and Thompson are to be highly commended for putting something like this together! WOW!