The Playgoer: Minstrelsy in the US, then and now

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Minstrelsy in the US, then and now

by Kevin Byrne

Greetings all Playgoer readers. I am filling in this week for The Playgoer, presenting you with illuminating and edifying information while he vacations on a beach and plays ukulele by moonlight. Different from the postings over the past week by Peter, I will be discussing some threads in the history of US minstrel performance, with an emphasis on black minstrelsy and with an eye toward current productions in New York City. It is an interesting story that has occupied much of my academic career, and certainly there are reverberations that are felt even today.

Minstrelsy is certainly a negative appellative these days, usually meant to castigate some cultural product for indulging in some general kind of racist caricature. (I recently ran across the word minstrelsy in article about Jersey Shore, labeling its self-parodying participants as amped-up Italian stereotypes.) The film Transformers 2—whose director, Michael Bay, frequently uses racial caricatures for comic relief—included a pair of mush-mouthed, slang-spewing robots whose ghettoized vernacular marked them for ridicule. And comedian/puppeteer Jeff Dunham has built his career around African American and Muslim stereotyping; both he (and his audience) can deflect accusations of racism by saying, "Hey, it's not me, something else is doing the talking." Two recent Broadway productions had critics referencing minstrelsy because of their use of African American signifiers: Lend Me a Tenor and A Behanding in Spokane. And a recent article in Theatre Journal, written by colleagues of mine, includes an analysis of the minstrel elements of the Donkey character in Shrek: The Musical.

Against this are those productions that have overtly appropriated the trappings and conventions of the minstrel show to criticize and challenge the racism in US culture. These efforts have had mixed success; I will be addressing them directly later in the week. Many of these productions on both sides of minstrelsy—those that employ stereotype for entertainment and those that utilize minstrelsy to subvert it—are only partially aware of its history. What I am proposing in my postings is a triptych of US minstrelsy: an incomplete portrait that hints at some of the depth and power of the form. Today, I will be touching upon the basic characteristics of the minstrel show; later I will be looking at minstrelsy in the twentieth century; and I will conclude with some words on recent uses of it in live performance.

The main thing to remember about the minstrel show is that it was meant to be an entertainment. The racism of the performances were intended not simply as hateful denigration, but in service of pleasurable comedy. The humor of the shows were delivered through jokes in dialect, songs employing working-class instrumentation, dances of grotesque abandonment, and costumes of either rural dilapidation or urban dandification. And, crucially, the shows, populated initially by white performers, used blackface makeup as metonym for blackness. It is this particular trope that became most important for later theatre and film artists in their efforts at critique.

What also must remain at the forefront of any discussion of minstrelsy is that these shows were intended to make money, were in fact hugely successful for nearly a hundred years (say, the 1830s to 1915). Indeed, the companies were not spreading racism for that end alone; these were entertainers looking to turn a profit. This fact begins to explain why it was that African American performers formed minstrel companies immediately after the Civil War, and flourished in the genre. It also points toward some of the other revenue streams that the companies used to capitalize on their fame: pamphlets and sheet music and joke books and eventually cylinder and phonograph recordings. The cumulative effect of these material byproducts is a subject I'll pursue later.

Finally, to counter the writings by some historians and novelists, I would like to remark that the cultural interactions which inspired the minstrel acts were never an equal exchange between black and white peoples. The social, legal, economic disparity between these groups was incalculably vast. And the minstrel show performed that gap.

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