BWW Review: The Minstrel Show Revisited
Frederick Douglass once described blackface performers as "...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion, denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens."
What would Douglas have said had he seen the October 28, 2015 performance of Spectrum Dance Theater's The Minstrel Show Revisited at Skirball Hall?
Let's look at the typical outline of an old minstrel show.
Usually, it followed a three act structure; here it is only two, and running close to three very long hours. During the first act the performers exchanged jokes and sang songs. Act Two continued with stump speech, where a performer delivered a political speech filled with jokes and gags, all the time aspiring to great dignity, failing to achieve even a modicum of respect due to his pitiable lack of education. The final act consisted of a farcical number or a parody of a popular show.
Choreographed, directed, and written by Donald Byrd, The Minstrel Show Revisited is fashioned in just that way. Here we have mostly Caucasian performers in blackface performing skits and scenes as if they were revelers in an old time minstrel show.
The trouble is, we've come too far in the 21st century. The production is one big racial slur, not only against blacks, but Hispanics, Jews, Christians....you name it. Set to provoke laughter from the audience, it made my brains curdle. Yes, there were some guffaws here and there, but what was the need to shock us with these asinine jokes?
There is still racism, ethnic prejudice, homophobia, etc., going on in the United States and abroad, but to continually hit us over the head with this observation seems to suggest a lack of insight, or even a sense of black humor, about the current situations we face now. The show doesn't articulate how these problems can be resolved. I was waiting to some sort of panacea, or the hope for some resolve at the end of the evening. When will people know the difference between humor and ignorance?
If the show is to rouse us into outrage and combustible fury, it did not achieve its goal. I was waiting for the moment when the audience would rise up in anger, screaming at its unqualified racism. At one point Donald Byrd, the choreographer, director, and author came out and invited audience members to come onstage and relate some recently heard ethnic jokes. Poor judgement or just plain asinine? If this was a way to incite us into a fury, or gain him publicity, it was a badly calculated move, not to mention egregious bad taste.
The show continued in this vein until the last half hour, when a real life situation, triggered by the Trayvon Martin case, was enacted, with most of the actors without their blackface makeup. However, instead of putting the knife to the heart, it refused to ignite my passion or sense of injustice. It just seemed like a note by note recital of the incident, punctuated by the clanging of tambourines.
Again, what we face in 21st century America is horrible. And no matter how we try to turn the tide against prejudice of any kind, it never seems to take hold anywhere. And it goes on. What's going to happen tomorrow?
What the production needed was an editor. It made its point in the first half hour and then there was no place to go, the author seemingly oblivious to this until the audience became antsy and wanted to leave. I have to admit that I was among them.
Credit goes to the excellent performers: Alex Crozier, Blair Elliot, Alexis "Tilly" Evans-Krueger, Davionne Gordon, Madison Oliver, Emily Pihlaja, Andrew Pontius, Fausto Rivera, Mary Sigward, Micah St. Kitt and Jaclyn Wheatley. They did an outstanding job of singing, dancing, and acting. If they had only received better material!
I wish I could end a more positive note. A production such as The Minstrel Show Revisited could have made its points more clearly and intelligently to a wide audience. You could feel that several audience members were questioning what they had seen, remembering and reliving scenes of injustice from their own lives.
I should have left the performance with the same feeling, the same hurt and rage welling up within me at what I had seen, and asking myself just how far we have progressed since the days of the minstrel shows. Perhaps the road is still a long one, and one that I have yet to travel and fully comprehend.
If you want to see an enlightening play of the racial landscape in the United States, go see Martin Duberman's "In White America," now playing at the Federal Theatre on 543 west 42nd Street. You might be surprised at what you'll learn.
Photograph: Ian Douglas