Minstrel Show Update Revisits Race Conversation

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For a good, hard look at race in America, go see Donald Byrd’s The Minstrel Show Revisited this weekend. Opening Thursday, February 20, as part of Spectrum Dance Theater’s season entitled “America: Sex, Race, and Religion,” Artistic Director Byrd is restaging his Bessie Award-winning 1991 work, The Minstrel Show, and this update, like the original, is guaranteed to elicit strong and no doubt divided reactions among its audience. Indeed, it already has. Some of the promotional materials, which feature dancers in blackface, have been torn down by the offended. “People look at the image of the blackface,” says Byrd, “and it does not occur to them that maybe it is meant to have them stop for a second.” Instead of questioning the flier—or themselves—they remove it.

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Spectrum dancers in a November 8, 2013, workshop performance of The Minstrel Show
Photo by Nate Watters

Byrd is an artist who thrives on opening dialogue about difficult, uncomfortable topics. Race is a prime example. Already, though, even before the curtain opens, Byrd is encountering more obstacles to dialogue than dialogue itself. This new version of The Minstrel Show was catalyzed by George Zimmerman’s 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin (he worked on the 1991 version after the death of Yusef Hawkins, in a similarly racial murder). Yet even here, an obstacle: Martin was shot in Florida, so what does that have to do with Seattle? “Even though it happened in Florida,” says Byrd, “the whole country was responding to it.” Martin’s death is as much about the national polarization that followed it as it is about the moment he was shot. Furthermore, Byrd finds that a reticence or discomfort in talking about race often falls on generational lines. “People of a certain generation”—those who witnessed the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s—“tend to think, oh we have solved those issues around race and they’re not really as pressing as they were before.”

So what is a minstrel show, anyway? Think Stephen Foster songs, mammies, stump speeches, cakewalks, and “Jump Jim Crow.” To give a little historical perspective, the minstrel show was a truly American form of theatrical entertainment most prevalent in the mid- to late nineteenth century. It was highly stylized and structured, heavy on song, dance, and comedy. Stock characters built out of racial stereotypes formed the crux of it, and both white people and black people performed in blackface. Although they began in the pre-Civil War North, with white people lampooning black culture—or, rather, a white understanding of black culture—minstrel shows evolved to become a more generalized arena to air racial tensions or anxieties surrounding whoever the minority group was in a given location.

Byrd’s Minstrel Show incorporates both the structure and techniques of nineteenth-century minstrel shows, with a razzle-dazzle opening number right out of a musical. Byrd notes that the blackface, among other elements, in a contemporary context gives the whole thing a grotesque or expressionistic quality. The second half retains some of the historical elements, but “the veneer of them is more contemporary.” Gradually, the blackface disappears. Here, too, is where the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman material comes in to play, occupying a place similar to a historical minstrel show’s “afterpiece.” Here, the tone is much more understated, with “a documentary quality to it” that mirrors the transcripts from Zimmerman’s interviews and the 911 call on the night of Martin’s death.

Another aspect that figures in to both the historical minstrel show and Byrd’s work is racial humor. From wordplay to slapstick, humor played a big part of historical minstrel shows, and Byrd uses this as a technique to address contemporary racial issues. Jokes play a big part. Byrd says that jokes, especially ones targeting race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, “tend to fall in two categories: one category where they are mean-spirited and meant to hurt, and then the other ones that are culturally observant” and more about striking a common chord. Both categories will play a part in the show this weekend, and one wonders: will the less mean-spirited ones be a relief, or will they become more uncomfortable, more tinged with anxiety, in the context of the hurtful ones?

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Spectrum dancer in a November 8, 2013 workshop performance of The Minstrel Show
Photo by Nate Watters

The entire show is an emotional journey, and “there’s an intellectual journey that happens as well,” says Byrd. Clearly this is not a performance that can be experienced piecemeal. The last section surrounding Martin and Zimmerman, for example, comes entrenched in the context of frank racial images and scenarios that come before. “The audience has to be willing to go through the whole ride.” Yet it is all in pursuit of understanding a relationship to race, both for the society and the individual, and sometimes the best way to do that is to let the whole thing breathe. Take the jokes again, says Byrd. “Because the jokes are not things that I made up and because they actually come from society, [the performance] creates a space where the toxic aspect of racism that manifests itself in that kind of humor is allowed to seep to the surface.” He compares it to the blood-letting medical techniques of the past, arguing that by bringing the disease, the ugliness, to the surface, “it’s allowed to dissipate. We get to look at it, face it, and then hopefully it starts to lose some of its power over us.”

A blackface minstrel show in the flesh is a daunting prospect for a seemingly progressive city like Seattle, but this is, in part, the answer to the question of why here, why now. Byrd subscribes to the idea that art can be a mirror for society. In dance, he finds that too often “the mirror is actually faced the other way…towards the choreographer as opposed to reflecting back out to society.” And sometimes the people who least think they need a mirror, those who think they have solved racism for themselves or believe themselves to be “beyond it”—“those are the people who get upset.” Seattle may not have the overt and highly publicized race relations history of, say the American South, but it exists here as much as anywhere in the country,as part of the fabric of American history.

But Byrd is hopeful, and he says he’s no cynic. “I believe that people are smart…ultimately, we want the world we live in to be one that’s equitable.” Art is his way to contribute to a better, more equitable society, and he encourages his dancers to become “citizen artists” who engage in art that makes the audience consider the world they live in. Through their risks in embodying uncomfortable and controversial personae on stage in The Minstrel Show, they take a tiny step toward dealing with the ongoing issues of race in America. Byrd does not attempt to sugar coat things, so don’t expect The Minstrel Show to be a cozy, comfortable experience. But do go expecting an experience that will stick with you, whether you like it or not. To make Byrd’s work successful, audience members should be ready to let it settle in their minds and bubble back to the surface from time to time. Perhaps it will influence a decision they make somewhere down the line. Perhaps they will tell their likeminded friends about it.

Spectrum Dance Theater performs Donald Byrd’s The Minstrel Show Revisited February 20-22 at the Cornish Playhouse. All shows are at 8pm. For information on pre- and post-show talks, check Spectrum’s website. Tickets can be purchased here.