Donald Byrd considers the evolution of minstrelsy.
BY JOAN ACOCELLA, November 2, 2015
For bien-pensant people looking to enjoy the art of the past, there is probably nothing more bewildering—not the gaze-worthy nudes of Titian, not the beautiful dances created for Indian girls who had been sold to their temples as priestess-prostitutes—than the minstrel shows that flourished in America in the years surrounding the Civil War. Typically, these shows featured a lineup of a dozen or so men performing comic songs and skits based on “darkie” stereotypes, above all the image of black people as happy-go-lucky, lazy, feckless guys lying around and chewing on something or other. Minstrel shows seem even more deplorable in that they began as the creation of white people, performing in blackface and with big, woolly wigs. But such shows were also hugely popular with black people, who were soon producing their own versions, in which they, too, corked up and put on fuzzy wigs. We owe minstrelsy a great debt. It was the foremost precursor of vaudeville. The one and then the other were what regular people had by way of variety-show entertainment before TV, and therefore they were the arena in which clogging and jigging and other dances coalesced into what we now call tap dance.
The racial jokes that were the stock-in-trade of minstrelsy are still around, and a lot of us, black and white, are still laughing at them, which is the subject of Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s 2012 book “Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop.” As Taylor and Austen argue, a lot of our best humor, especially our African-American humor, comes from minstrel traditions. Dave Chappelle told Oprah Winfrey that blackface “got me in touch with my inner coon.” This resulted in some very funny routines. Chappelle eventually walked away from it. He was embarrassed, he said. But Chitlin’ Circuit plays and hip-hop videos, both of which Taylor and Austen see as descended from minstrelsy, haven’t gone away.
Spike Lee’s movie “Bamboozled,” from 2000, was an angry protest against the use of minstrel stereotypes in entertainment. So is “The Minstrel Show Revisited,” in which Donald Byrd, the artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theatre, has performers in blackface singing and dancing while acts of police brutality take place in the foreground. The 2014 version of Byrd’s show was inspired by the killing of Trayvon Martin. On Oct. 28-30, at Skirball Center, Byrd will present an updated rendition, taking into account especially the death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Minstrelsy has had a broader legacy than tap dance, Byrd feels.
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY ELEANOR DAVIS