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A New Look at Minstrels

As the close of February concludes Black History Month, Jason Christophe White and Aaron White deserve a big round of applause for their concept, direction and performance of The Dance: The History of American Minstrelsy.  Having just finished up a limited two week engagement at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, Jason Christophe White and Aaron White should step away from the New York stage as pleased as their audiences.  The Dance offers a unique look at the history of minstrel shows, as typically taught throughout society but performed with the hindsight of an African American eye. 

When the lights come up for the beginning of the performance, audiences are greeted by two young black men (Jason Christophe White and Aaron White, no relation), showcasing eager grins magnified ten times by traditional blackface makeup.  Of course, the makeup's purpose is to intensify facial expressions, but it does so almost alarmingly.  The large section of white makeup which surrounds the mouth simultaneously passes off the look of dopey clown.  The blackface makeup worn by African American men instead of white men, clashes with what our mind's eye has been trained to expect.  The overall appearance of Jason Christophe White and Aaron White cause the audience to do a double take before moving on and grasping the overarching concept of the show – the history of American minstrelsy performed by two African Americans.   In addition to the makeup, Jason Christophe White and Aaron White wear typical minstrel show costumes which also do nothing to portray a smart character.  Instead, the overall makeup and costume are entrée into a new version of clowns – the minstrels.  Although this suggestion is never said outright by either actor, the historical minstrel portrayal of African Americans as unintelligent people is easy enough to infer and serves as a mental backdrop throughout the entire show.  As Jason Christophe White and Aaron White perform various skits and dances from the era, audience members unfamiliar with the details of American minstrelsy begin to realize there may have been more to the shows then originally thought.

The performance continues with intelligent interlacing of minstrel history explained through more modern means.  When the actors state minstrel shows demonstrated how black music differed from other music of the era, they utilize rap to discuss the point.  The "call and respond" characteristic of black music is clearly illustrated by engaging the audience in a current and popular rap song which relies on an audience call back.  This concept, while not new to most, highlights where its roots come from and pays a subtle yet respectful tribute to the past in the process – a major result both Jason Christophe White and Aaron White want The Dance to portray.    

Jason Christophe White and Aaron White perform with goofy innocence that endears the show to those watching.  However, as the history lesson on minstrelsy continues, audiences learn more and more about how this medium was an inaccurate portrayal of the race.  The Dance teaches that minstrels romanticized the race rather than acknowledging its slavery history.  A poignant moment in the performance is the acknowledgment that minstrel shows performed racial stereotypes, giving white people a means to learn about African Americans without ever really getting to know them personally.  However, startling insights like this are also balanced with stories such as minstrel performers like Bert Williams – a black man who performed in blackface to appear white.  All the different historical facts about minstrelsy – who performed in them and what they included – ultimately helps audiences realize that no matter what race they are, everyone wears a mask of some sort at some time.   

Amid the fun and facts The Dance provides, Jason Christophe White and Aaron White effortlessly deliver a fitting homage to African Americans showcasing where they were in this country and how far they have come.  Although minstrelsy seems to be a dying genre seldom discussed, The Dance counteracts this by embracing American minstrelsy and showing it to the world.  Proud of their artistic roots, Jason Christophe White and Aaron White highlight American minstrelsy by balancing a respectful past with the insights of today to provide the most entertaining history lesson one could ever want.      

Photo Credit: Tatiana Elkhouri
Photo A: (L to R) Aaron White and Jason Christophe White
Photo B: Jason Christophe White
Photo C: Aaron White

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