Bring up the topic of race anywhere in the country, and most people react with telling responses: clammy expressions, uncomfortable gestures, righteous defensiveness, or even detached nonchalance. Yet despite the “riskiness” of this topic, Donald Byrd and Spectrum Dance Theater boldly unpacked the history and the current state of race relations in America with poignant poeticism in The Minstrel Show Revisited. The show was performed February 20-22 at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.
The Minstrel Show Revisited, a re-staged version of Byrd’s 1991 Bessie Award-winning work The Minstrel Show, continued SDT’s season titled “America: Sex, Race, and Religion.” While the first version was catalyzed by the race-driven murder of Yusef Hawkins in 1989, the new Minstrel was driven by the death of Trayvon Martin—a similar racial incident which many claim to be a turning point in the debunking of the concept of a “post-racial America.”
Byrd pulled out all the stops: he wove razzle-dazzle dance, songs, drama, and comedic monologues throughout the vaudevillian show structure. As the antics went back and forth between mean-spirited and culturally observant, the show evolved into meta-commentary on not only the minstrel shows themselves, but the racial tensions involved within them. Though it is a cringeworthy chapter in American entertainment history, the original minstrel shows provided a space for people to relieve themselves of the hostile racial relations at the time.
The dancers’ faces were painted in blackface with white eyes and mouths, indicating the performance was less about blackness and more about the white idea of blackness. They wore black unitards, afro wigs, and colorful scarfs—a uniform that produced a caricature less than human (likely referencing how white slave-owners used to think of their black slaves).
The text used throughout the performance was impeccably performed and packed multiple punches. Chock-full of witty monologues it both satirized and exposed stereotypes and racist jokes. Some moments were less of a commentary and more a recount of history. Still, each word spoken was provocative and even uncomfortable to hear at times. Audience responses ranged from nervous to genuine laughter; every so often, there would be an echo of “ooh”-s at a particularly offensive joke. In the middle of both acts, the house lights came on and Byrd invited the audience to share insensitive jokes they’d heard.
In one strikingly thought-provoking sequence, the trickster emcee (clad in a three-piece suit and played superbly by Alex Crozier) strung one textual passage with such devilish fervor that it sounded like a zingy, grotesque, and slur-infused poem. He listed almost all slurs and stereotypes known in the book: “abe,” “negro,” “trailer trash,” “WASP,” “redneck,” “redskin,” “terrorist,” “7-11,” and “dyke,” among many others. In the background, two men stood still while a woman absentmindedly waved an American flag.
Sections of superb dancing punctuated the show. The dancers wove in and out of richly choreographed dance sequences which combined everything from technical ballet steps to jive to character dancing. Although some of the dances (still performed in blackface) added little to the commentary, they effectively provided a light relief from the harsh reality that Byrd’s analysis bombarded the audience with.
The second half of the show veered away from the minstrel show structure. The blackface gradually disappeared and the sections became more of historical vignettes illustrating the treatment of African Americans. In one haunting scene, a white woman in a bustier and fishnets seduced several men (who were still in blackface). Though at first the section seemed like a discussion on interracial relationships, the whole mood shifted drastically as a towering figure in white Ku Klux Klan robe and mask slowly approached. The Klan figure tied a rope around the black-faced figure and with one swift and unexpected move, lynched the man to his death, thus evoking gasps from the audience. In another sequence, two white “Southern belles” and one white “gentleman” walked slowly across the stage, while a black man (not in blackface) ran around them struggling, as though desperately attempting to escape an unseen suffocating force, but failing miserably. The white characters blindly turned the other cheek.
This is also where Byrd referenced the Zimmerman/Martin incident. By this point, the blackface and unitards were replaced by black hoodies and pants; the dancers were no longer caricatures. Zimmerman’s 911 call before and interrogation after Martin’s death became a sound score for the rigorous choreography, brilliantly danced by Derek Crescenti as Zimmerman and Davione Gordon as Martin. Even though most know how the story ended, the section was still an emotional and intellectual ride.
Despite the extensiveness of the subject matter, Byrd and his company managed to address plenty of the facets surrounding racial discussions without being self-righteous. Nearly three hours in length, Minstrel is an ambitious production. Yet Byrd’s highly athletic choreography and witty monologues as well as Mio Morales’ haunting sound scores were more than enough to keep the audience on their toes.
For more information on SDT’s upcoming season, visit their website.