IMPRESSIONS OF: “The Minstrel Show Revisited”

IMPRESSIONS OF: “The Minstrel Show Revisited”
Robert Johnson

By Robert Johnson
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Published on November 3, 2015
Photo: Ian Douglas

Choreographer, director and author: Donald Byrd
Lighting Design: Rico Chiarelli / Lighting Director: Jack Mehler
Costume Designer: Doris Black (inspired by Gabriel Berry’s costumes for the 1991 “The Minstrel Show”)
Stage Manager: Matt McClane / Original Music: Mio Morales
Company Artists: Alex Crozier, Blair Elliot, Alexis “Tilly” Evans-Krueger, Davione Gordon, Madison Oliver, Emily Pihlaja, Andrew Pontius, Fausto Rivera, Mary Sigward, Micah St. Kitts, Jaclyn Wheatley
Additional Music: “Soda (Mikeq & Davioli S’Vere Daughters Ha Remix)” and “Sweet Tea (Cedaa Remix)” by Boody & Le1f (from Liquid EP); “Stoptime Rag,” “Something Doing,” “Bethena,” and “Heliotrope Bouquet” by Scott Joplin
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, October 28-30, 2015

Watching Donald Byrd’s The Minstrel Show Revisited, a viewer is liable to feel dizzy and then worse. Don’t try to suppress it. Byrd says this up-dated revival of his 1991 production, running over the weekend at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, should make us puke. In the absence of a doctor with a proven cure for the ills associated with racism, the choreographer will put a helpful finger down our throats.

Byrd wants us to disgorge the toxic cultural artifacts that, as Americans, we have unwittingly swallowed. In The Minstrel Show, he sets the example heaving up blackface clowns; ugly names for people of different nationalities and religions; sneering, stale jokes; cloying nostalgia for the “gallant” South that prospered from slavery; and insulting bits of dialog from old movies. The sight of this undigested mess is disturbing to say the least. And despite the uplifting talent of the performers, who belong to Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theatre from Seattle, audience members may leave the auditorium feeling weak and drained.

At the post-performance discussion, Byrd himself appears exhausted. A quiet, thoughtful man, he seems freshly wounded by the rudeness of this material and by having to deal with the consequences of his double-edged approach to theater---offending and enlightening an audience at the selfsame moment. No one likes this show. People walk out in a huff. And the performers admit they can see us bristling indignantly in our seats. As an emetic, The Minstrel Show is terrifically effective. Yet though Byrd risks making himself deeply unpopular, he hopes his remedy will work and we will all feel better in the long run.

Donald Byrd; Photo by Ian Douglas

The show has returned just in time for Halloween, which seems appropriate. Inevitably this year some clueless neighbors will go trick-or-treating with the whole family in blackface because they idolize The Jacksons. And The Minstrel Show is a piece about masks. These masks are not the ones actors adopt, by choice, to liberate themselves. They’re the grinning masks certain people are forced to wear, granting freedom to their oppressors.

A form of captivity that extended for decades beyond Emancipation, the blackface mask, with its burnt-cork base or greasepaint exaggerating the contours of eyes and mouth, imprisoned African-American performers within a stereotype that also involved tap dancing, “eccentric” dancing and a vocabulary of limp, white-gloved gestures. At the same time, because it was a mask of comedy, blackface freed white spectators from the burdens of conscience, and from acknowledging their privilege in a racist society. While legitimate theater often uncovers truths by arousing empathy for the characters onstage, the hackneyed images employed in minstrelsy worked the opposite way insidiously perpetuating falsehoods, severing the connection between spectators and performers and concealing the humanity of a persecuted minority.

This revival of The Minstrel Show importantly reveals the extent to which we have outgrown these racist caricatures, and the ways we have not. Minstrelsy fell out of favor in the early years of the last century, so much of this material is half-forgotten. Young people may not know minstrelsy ever existed. Yet racial stereotypes are still with us, and they are deadly.

Even those who have seen “The Jazz Singer” may be shocked by the appearance of Byrd’s master of ceremonies, Alex Crozier. As he emerges from darkness, the light strikes the white makeup pooled around his eyes and ricochets off his gleaming spats. His whole costume, including an Afro wig, tuxedo jacket and bow tie, suggests a checkerboard cartoon. And did we really just hear him promise to entertain us rhyming “good, old tunes” with “dandy coons,” uttering a racist epithet discarded a century ago? Although we can still decipher his meaning, this reference to a stock character of minstrelsy seems so outrageous we can’t trust our ears until Crozier repeats the words.

From left to right: Fausto Rivera, Alex Crozier, Alexis Tilly Evans-Krueger; Photo by Ian Douglas

While The Minstrel Show summons such conventions from the theatrical graveyard to which they were banished long ago, Byrd naturally does not want to resurrect minstrelsy or make it amusing.  So while his cast display a wonderful earnestness, prompt energy and dancing skill, Byrd undercuts their performances by slowing or clipping the characters’ speech, and by introducing additional layers of satire all his own.

Despite its historicity, The Minstrel Show remains contemporary. When two female clowns join Crozier, flanking him after his opening monologue, the fluorescent nipples on their breasts are our first clue that this program will link past and present targeting other forms of exploitation as well as racism. While referencing antique dances like the Waltz, the Charleston and the high-stepping Cakewalk, the performers wear sleek, modern unitards and their dance vocabulary incorporates gyrating, burlesque moves; balletic arabesques; backflips, cartwheels and acrobatic partnering.  Byrd’s long-time collaborator, composer Mío Morales, supplies an accompaniment that honks and tinkles incorporating Scott Joplin’s jaunty rags.

In a sendup of “Gone with the Wind,” Crozier turns up in a fresh disguise. As a cross-dressing “Mammy,” he helps “Southern Belle” Emily Pihlaja into her ball-gown reacting with distaste each time she addresses him by a different servant’s name. Pihlaja begins the skit anachronistically, however, complaining in real time about the difficulties she encountered on her way to work. Here Byrd equates his performers’ elite status as artists with white privilege.

While they struggle with that conundrum, viewers may also wrestle with another problem: how can we separate the art on view from its degrading context, honoring the courage and virtuosity of performers both living and deceased, and admiring old dance forms for their beauty regardless of the setting in which they once featured? Is there any way to salvage an inheritance without falsifying the past? Tap dancers have leapt over this stumbling block. But can we ever rehabilitate the Cakewalk?

The Minstrel Show presents more difficulties---so many that Byrd takes two pages in the playbill to list them; and he doesn’t begin to exhaust the possibilities. Some of these problems arise directly from minstrelsy’s conventions. Donning blackface to deliver a speech, Byrd discourses nonsensically on a line from the nursery rhyme “Old Mother Hubbard.” His job here is to skewer a parody, making sure we know his intelligence is real even as he mocks his character’s faux erudition; and the result is droll and painful at the same time.

Spectrum Dance Theater; Photo by Ian Douglas

Another scene has a more straightforward impact, when it juxtaposes conflicting perspectives. As a massed chorus sings “My Old Kentucky Home,” characters in ante-bellum finery stroll across the stage with exaggerated slowness, swimming through a fog of sentiment so thick they can barely move. Cutting through this miasma, however, is the figure of a runaway slave---a man not masked in blackface. Scrambling on the floor as quickly as he can, Davione Gordon looks terrified, and he lifts his tied hands beseechingly.

This episode contrasts with another one in which Gordon portrays a victim. This time, however, he’s wearing his clown makeup, cringing and trembling before Jaclyn Wheatley, a white woman dressed for sex in garters and a bra. Gordon’s companions have already skedaddled in fear of this woman; and we soon learn why. A towering Klansman appears and Wheatley assists him by placing a noose around Gordon’s neck, kissing her hapless love-slave before the hooded executioner takes him away. Blackface renders the scene impersonal and tries to make light of it, but the subject is too serious for laughter. Here the dancer’s comic mask can only mitigate the grimness of the situation by converting it to bitter irony.

The most difficult difficulties are those that hint at the survival of minstrelsy in modern times. Are we still generating racist stereotypes? During a rambunctious number for floor-scrubbing “Mammies,” one of them (Micah St. Kitts) experiences an over-the-top wardrobe malfunction, recalling Janet Jackson’s mishap at the Super Bowl in 2004. Hooded “gangstas” are yet to come; and a group of dancers references the “I Been Buked” section of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Even a bastion of respectability like the Ailey company isn’t safe from Byrd’s probing.

No one, in fact, is safe. Setting aside this show’s racist phantasmagoria, the choreographer appears in street clothes and calls for the house lights. As relaxed and personable as he can be, Byrd invites---no, he demands---that the audience join in the fun. He wants volunteers to step forward and tell everyone the most bigoted/sexist/homophobic joke they’ve heard recently. Eventually a handful of reluctant viewers comply. More spectators can be coaxed to write down a joke anonymously; and later Byrd will read these confessions aloud. This portion of the program makes it clear that a person doesn’t have to be a habitual user of ethnic slurs to be affected by stereotyping. Social problems have a way of sharing themselves; and this one has sullied everyone who has ever heard such a joke---which includes all of us.

Byrd reveals in the post-performance talkback that he originally created The Minstrel Show in response to the murder of Yusef Hawkins, an African-American teenager attacked by a mob of white youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1989. Since then, the death toll has not abated. Racism is still a national horror show; and the persistence of stereotypes allows demented vigilantes like George Zimmerman to frighten themselves (Happy Halloween!) until they kill innocent people and inflict grievous damage on our families and communities. So, terribly, the only part of The Minstrel Show that isn’t difficult is finding more bloodshed to reference.

In the final scenes of this “revisited” program, we hear the transcript of the conversation that Zimmerman had with a police dispatcher as he began stalking 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, prior to assaulting and killing him; and the transcript of an interview from last year in which police officer Darren Wilson describes his fight with 18-year-old Michael Brown, which concluded with Brown’s death. Byrd’s minstrels form a chorus in the background, punctuating these readings by smacking tambourines; and in his role as MC, Crozier insinuates himself when Andrew Pontius and Gordon re-enact Trayvon Martin’s shooting. In fact, while feigning alarm the minstrel is the agent of death who hands Pontius/Zimmerman his pistol.

Byrd makes the connection clear. When will we start to see racial stereotyping for what it is---not a comic mask at all, but the mask of tragedy?


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