The Playgoer: Minstrelsy in the US, here and there

Custom Search

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Minstrelsy in the US, here and there

by Kevin Byrne

Building off of yesterday's posting, what I examine here are the instances of minstrelsy into the twentieth century. An interesting phenomena to examine and explore is the ways the minstrel show became useful to, was in fact foundational for, so many of the technologically mediated entertainment industries of the century. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, minstrelsy (like so many other popular forms, such as vaudeville) became less sustainable as a live form of professional entertainment. The increasingly cheap and ubiquitous media of film, phonograph, and later radio rendered them antiquated. But, of course, these were the same media that appropriated and utilized elements of minstrelsy: blackface caricatures, dialect songs, and so forth. To return to the points I was making in my last post, the minstrel show should be seen as a business: some companies tenaciously hung on, some performers moved to the new media, and most individuals found other lines of work.

These new media were mass produced very quickly and minstrelsy was ubiquitous within them. Because of the tangible, durable, material products from this time period, these are the images and sounds that are most readily called to mind when the word "minstrelsy" is used: a corked-up Al Jolson singing "Mammy" in The Jazz Singer, Andy and Amos scheming at the Open Air Taxi Company, Bert Williams in a chicken suit, Aunt Jemima with a plate of flapjacks. A cataloguing of all instances of black racial caricature in US popular and mass culture is obviously beyond the scope of this blog post, or of any individual work of history. But I can point readers to Marion Riggs's brilliant documentary Ethnic Notions, or in a related but different way, the montage sequence at the conclusion of Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Blackface and minstrelsy were foundational to these media forms; that they were a successful and continuing part of it.

I stress this because I want to move forward in time, to the era where theatre and film artists really began using minstrel show characteristics as a way of lashing out against such racist denigration. Throughout the twentieth century, of course, artists were challenging black stereotype by presenting alternative, dignified, human portraits of African Americans. But it was really during the Black Arts/Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s that the accumulated images and effluvia of minstrelsy were taken from mass culture producers and thrown back at them. In the visual arts, Betye Saar put a machine gun in Aunt Jemima's hands; on Charles Mingus's Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, someone shouts that Aunt Jemima wants freedom!

In the New York theatre world of the 1960s, minstrel tropes were employed by Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, and Adrienne Kennedy. They were inverted by Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, in which a town wakes up one morning to discover that all the African Americans have disappeared, and the townsfolk are unable to perform simple daily tasks (the show has a cast of black actors in whiteface). Some of these shows, and others of the time, can rightly be seen as reaffirming an essentializing difference between white and black, even in their defense and celebration of African American culture.

But what must also be kept in mind, when discussing or thinking about these shows and the power and rage they express, is that they weren't railing against ye olde timey minstrel show of T.D. Rice's Jim Crow and Steven Foster's Old Uncle Ned. The images and caricatures were very present in US culture at the time: in TV shows, films, advertisements, and so forth. The tradition of minstrelsy that was angrily critiqued had a complicated history and a very present place in US society.

Though the presence of racist African American imagery has somewhat abated in the twenty-first century, it still finds a way of making itself present: look no further than a box of Obama Waffles.

In my final post, I will look to those New York performances of the past few years which have overtly used blackface and minstrelsy to provoke, parody, or shock. The results have been uneven and sometimes troubling.

No comments: