Our society proclaims to be a progressive one, one that rises above stereotypes and prejudice. It’s not always true, of course, but maybe it’s the thought that counts. Spectrum Dance Theater, closing its #RACEish season, performed The Minstrel Show Revisited at the Cornish Playhouse from June 16-19. But instead of declaring supposed societal superiority, Minstrel, choreographed by Spectrum artistic director Donald Byrd, stooped to the level of prejudiced stereotypes to hold up a mirror to society and show just how much more we have to do in fixing failed racial relations in the United States.
This production was last performed in Seattle in 2014, and the original was produced in 1991 (and went on to win a Bessie Award). Through razzle-dazzle dance numbers with ragtime influences, zesty menages of racist jokes, and blackface packed in a vaudevillian show structure, Minstrel captured the essence of traditional minstrel shows while simultaneously reveling in the racial undercurrents so intimately woven into American culture.
Each rendition of Minstrel has incorporated a high-profile racially-motivated murder of a black teenager. Byrd worked on the 1991 Minstrel after the murder of 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins by a crowd of white teens in Brooklyn, NY. The 2014 production used the 911 call made by George Zimmerman prior to shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Miami Gardens, FL. Now, in 2016, Byrd has included the Zimmerman-Martin section and added a new one: A police investigation interview with Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson following the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. At the end, Byrd entered the stage and recited the names of the black men and women killed at the hands of police since Brown’s death, although the list did not include the two most recent ones in Falcon Heights, MN, and in Baton Rouge, LA.
Minstrel did many things well. For one thing, the performers have never looked better. Alexis “Tilly” Evans-Krueger executed a hip hop-infused solo to rhythmic thumping music just as effortlessly as she breezed through a ballet variation peppered with waltzes and syncopated footwork. Alex Crozier as the minstrel show emcee proved himself a triple threat. He zoomed through a series of racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, you-name-it-phobic slurs (“Arab,” “fag,” “negro,” “dyke”…) with such devilish fervor that it sounded like a potent yet grotesque poem, as another dancer waved the American flag behind him. To top it off, Crozier demonstrated that he can belt a tune about working as a “mammy” in the Antebellum South just as masterfully as he can battement and kick-ball-change in a three-piece suit.
Yet one of the most effective aspects of Minstrel is its ability to not only shock, but also prompt thoughts about power dynamics. The shocking parts are easy to identify. The image of a person in blackface is enough to elicit a visceral response in this country, but other contents packed similar punch. In one section, Spectrum newcomer Madison Oliver portrayed a sultry temptress with equal parts danger and vulnerability. Clad in a bustier and fishnets sans blackface, she seduced multiple men (all of them in blackface), and once she was finished with the men, a towering figure in a Ku Klux Klan robe emerged, tied a noose over a man’s neck, and lynched him. In another vignette, several white “Southern belles” and a “gentleman” glided slowly across the stage and blindly turned the other cheek while a black man (not in blackface, but with a rope around his hands), ran around struggling, but failing, to escape an invisible force. At one point, even Byrd himself came out and asked the audience for racist jokes they’ve heard.
Peppered among these shock-and-awe bits are dance-y sections to Mio Morales’ music that, while adding little to the commentary, provided a welcome relief from the racist jokes, social analysis, and weighty images. Yet even watching these supposedly “neutral” dance moves prompted questions. Should we applaud Evans-Krueger’s masterful technique even though she’s in blackface? Will the audience member next to us know that we don’t condone the use of blackface, but we’re cheering for Davione Gordon’s virtuosity? Is it bad for us to slowly ignore the heavy image of someone in blackface to begin with? Even an audience member pointed out in the post-show discussion that they wanted so badly to give the proficient dancers the standing ovation they deserved, but wasn’t sure that it would be appropriate, given the somber mood they were left with after Byrd recited the numerous names of black folks killed by police. There are no easy answers to these questions.
Though the #RACEish season is now over, Minstrel managed to leave plenty concerns to ponder, especially in the predominantly white and still segregated Seattle where racial issues tend to get swept under the rug. The show was long and hard for obvious reasons. As Byrd wrote in the program, “[Minstrel] is difficult because in spite of what one says, none of us are color-blind…It is difficult because we hate every minute of how we feel when we watch it, yet watch it anyway…It is difficult because in it the past and present collide and often look the same.”
Long and difficult as it may be, at the end of the show, most of the audience can retreat to the comfort of white security, escaping the disturbing reality Minstrel portrayed. Others of them have to live with that reality for life.
For more information on the company, visit Spectrum’s website.