Black History Month: The same old song and dance?

The Minstrel Show... worth revisiting? (Photo by Nate Watters)
The Minstrel Show… worth revisiting? (Photo by Nate Watters)

Bright red curtains part. A spotlight travels across an all-black stage. Everyone in skin tight black body suits with floppy afro wigs and black face. I mean black like shoe shine, like tar, like coal, black with chalk white rings around their eyes and smiling mouths.

I’d never seen a Minstrel Show. The closest was probably “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby, which was a bunch of white people singing, dancing and telling corny jokes. All very family time TV appropriate, (when that still meant something). It seemed so innocuous.

But “The Minstrel Show Revisited” performed by Spectrum Dance Theater was anything but.

I caught the second night of a three night run last weekend at the Cornish Playhouse at the Seattle Center. This performance, choreographed and directed by Donald Byrd, the Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater, was an updated version of an original work Byrd presented in 1991.

Throughout the 19th century, minstrel shows were a uniquely American, extremely popular form of entertainment where white people put on black face and pretended to be black — and later black people put on black face pretending to be white people pretending to be black people. These shows included singing, dancing, and jokes that perpetuated and amplified, some might say solidified, the majority of the stereotypes about black people still prevalent today.

What better time than black history month to revisit our racist past and pay homage to our racist present.

I want to say I knew what I was getting into. I understood the premise of using minstrelsy as a tool to expose stereotypes and conduct an experiential form of social commentary.

“You can’t erase a conscious moment,” Byrd explained during the post-show discussion.

He expressed his hope that the minstrel show would be a wakeup call to make the audience really acknowledge the ways in which we are complicit in the systems of oppression and hierarchy. He wanted to create this specific show as a call to action, a hard ask in our passive-aggressive, PC city.

When the first performer appeared on stage in a black and white suit best described as cartoonish, and his lips parted in a garish grin, I felt my stomach turn.

I sat in the smoky darkness beside the friend who invited me, who happens to be white, and thought guiltily that this was not something we should be seeing together. Sure, we could watch it side by side, but it was not exactly a shared experience.

Spectrum Dance Theater performs Donald Byrd's "The Minstrel Show Revisited." (Photo by Nate Watters)
Spectrum Dance Theater performs Donald Byrd’s “The Minstrel Show Revisited.” (Photo by Nate Watters)

There is something so private about the all too public, everyday humiliations of racism. The white clerk following me around the mall, the white hand of a stranger on the bus reaching out to pet my hair, the note of surprise  and the “you speak so well” as though I couldn’t, shouldn’t possibly be so very educated.

These are the discussions I avoid having with my white friends, partly because I am sick of rehashing the same issues and partly because I am equally exhausted of being used as a tool for someone else’s education.

There was something equally intimate about this performance and the way the mask of blackness grinned at me, mirroring back every biting image of who white America perceives me to be. The dancers leapt and spun and tapped and swayed their way across the stage, every movement exaggerated, every expression so vivid. Coonery personified.

I sat there thinking of my own mask, of all the things I don’t say, the unexpressed rage dwelling quietly within me. bell hooks calls it a killing rage. Lorraine Hansberry compared it to a raisin in the sun, but so few of us have the luxury to burst, to rot, to fester openly. I like my life outside of jail, and not bursting, not punching someone in the face when they so cavalierly dehumanize me makes that possible. Honesty can be dangerous. Though perhaps not as dangerous as before. I’m not at home arming my ADT because I think the Klan is going to lynch me (but then again I don’t live in Florida).

I was triggered and stuck in the front row, my mind pin-wheeling with thoughts and feelings as more and more black faces appeared, dancing to rag time piano music.

Then suddenly the house lights came up and Donald Byrd himself stepped spritely onto the stage, not in black face (although he did appear later in the show in full regalia), just as himself.  He informed us that we had reached the audience participation portion of the evening.

Chagrinned, I dropped a whispered F bomb because simply witnessing this performance was already becoming a lot to ask.

Six people did volunteer, and were prompted to tell whatever offensive jokes sprung first to their mind. People love to say the thing that is forbidden and here was the chance to speak aloud the derogatory humor graffitied on our collective subconscious. There were jokes about gender, race, nationalities, sexualities, even blondes. Jokes I never heard.

More than the jokes, the laughter jarred me. Who was laughing and why?

Down went the lights and out came that face again. That haunting face, that nightmare clown made even more frightening by its relevance to today. The music was old, the shuck and jive, a familiar dance, too familiar, generations out of date and yet I felt like this so called “re-visit” was just an unveiling of a reoccurring illness with which we are still so very afflicted.

The show continued with the cartoon suited dandy giving a monologue list of every derogatory term you can possibly think of and some you might not have even heard of. The list was robustly inclusive. But as the show progressed the focus narrowed back to the ever present dichotomy of black and white.

After the intermission, a new character was introduced, a white woman. She was the first person beside Byrd to appear onstage bare faced and I was a bit startled that she was white. The black face and costumes had given such anonymity to the dancers that I had assumed they were all black beneath the paint. Assuming anything in the context of this show is a mistake. It is so nuanced and deep on so many levels that I could probably spend months wondering what really happened.

The white woman wore a wig of blond ringlets and pranced around clad in a black bustier with knee high fish nets and heels. She held two tambourines — and believe me, no tambourines have ever been quite so menacing. She danced the dance of the predatory white woman, a dance I’d seen up close just a few nights ago at the bar. But this version ended with a black man in a noose (whereas the bar version ended up with a black man following her into a bathroom).

From there the show revisited several other familiar stories of Mammy and Scarlett O’Hara and the good old South, culminating in a chilling staged reading of the actual transcripts from the 911 call made by George Zimmerman.

The performance begged the question: What does it mean to be black in America now? What is the difference between black history and black present?

After two and half hours of sitting in the dark, made darker by my own thoughts and feelings, I had no idea how to process the performance. I find it difficult to even frame the show as a revisiting, when the issues it addressed are so ever present in my daily reality.

For me the questions remain:

What are our next steps? How do we co-exist in a way that is less damaging? What action should I take to be part of the solution?

And how do we transition from black history to black future? From stereotypes and caricatures to real people having real conversations and seeing one another for who we really are?

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