All White Creative Team Uses Blackface Minstrelsy on Broadway

On October 31st, 2010, blackface minstrelsy opened on Broadway in a new musical called The Scottsboro Boys.  There are black men in blackface currently on Broadway. In 2010.  And while the mere idea of using minstrelsy as a form of entertainment seems distasteful, knowing the long history this country has faced, the content of the show is even more offputting.

The Scottsboro Boys depicts one of the most horrific episodes of injustice in American civil rights history, when 1930′s Alabama saw fit to falsely accuse and sentence to death nine young black boys for the rape of two white women.  The two white women curiously were avoiding prostitution accusations. The names of the Scottsboro Nine were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charley Weems, Eugene Williams and brothers Roy and Andrew Wright. Their ages ranged between 12 and 19 years old.  

Mere days after their arrest, all were found guilty, eight of the teens were sentenced to death, and while four were eventually dropped, the remaining boys spent years in jail before remarkable dedication finally saw their cases exonerated.  Haywood Patterson died in prison.

The all-star writing/composing team of Kander and Ebb (responsible for shows such as Cabaret and Chicago), mixed with Tony award winning director Susan Stroman (The Producers) uses the minstrel tradition to draw a comparison between the Scottsboro Nine and the judicial system.

Protesters, organized by the Freedom Party, argued that the use of minstrelsy and blackface were racist. Ms. Stroman said she was disappointed that people who probably had not seen the musical misunderstood that the creators were not celebrating the minstrel tradition, but rather using it to reveal the evils of the system.  “The trials were treated as if the boys were in a minstrel show because it was such a farce,” she said of the production. “The actors actually deconstruct the device in front of the audience, and in the end, rebel against it.”

Previous success by this talented creative time doesn’t give artistic license because frankly it negates the long history of suffering, oppression, and mockery related to it.

While Chicago had a satirical style and The Producers found humor with poking fun at numbers such as “Springtime for Hitler,” the fact is the power dynamic isn’t at play in either of those shows and neither has a history of performance (or forced performance) in the United States.

Roxy Hart was actually guilty and her whiteness gave her the ability to literally get away with murder, yet the innocent Scottsboro boys couldn’t even get represented by a lawyer recognized by the bar.  The “show within a show” set up for The Producers allowed the audience to mock the insanity of putting on such a number as dancing Nazi’s, but only because The Nazi Party was the aggressor in terms of the atrocities in that time period. We would never have stood for a musical number with struggling concentration camp victims singing and dancing, so why is it okay in the case of Scottsboro?

“This ‘musical comedy’ makes a mockery of an historic travesty of justice with total disregard for the humanity and suffering of the judicial lynchings that have marred the history of the United States then and now,” said Amadi Ajamu, a Freedom Party spokesperson. “Cite the ongoing struggle for justice and reparations for the ‘Central Park Five.’ Five teenage boys who served up to 15 years in prison for a rape of a white female Wall Street broker they did not commit…We cannot stand by and allow this show to continue without standing up in resistance. It is an atrocity and should be shut down immediately.”

Professor Farah Griffin, the director for the Institute of Research and African-American studies at Columbia University, has been approaching the play with great trepidation. Griffin has not seen the play yet, but says she has concerns about the play being done in this form. “This story is so complex, and this is such a strange choice of material for a musical or even a straight play.”

Let us not be bamboozled into understanding what entertainment should be.  If the creative team genuinely wanted to create a show that made space for racial dialogue, they would have considered the images they were displaying.  Simply stated, Jim Crow was real and awful, but certainly not entertaining.

Protestor, dancer, singer and cultural activist Nana Camille Yarbrough said “The American minstrel show was created in the early 1800s by European American entertainers, who cruelly distorted the language, dance, song, humor, style, physiognomy and performance forms of our enslaved ancestors.”

Stroman previously told Playbill.com that the goal was “taking something that was an art form a long time ago and spinning it on its head” to make greater political and social points.

Those greater social points are still unclear.  The Scottsboro case was clearly racist, minstrelsy is clearly racist and blackface is clearly racist. The audience didn’t need minstrelsy to understand that.

With all due respect, minstrelsy and blackface were never art forms.  It was a way to further a caricature created by white Europeans and in effect, create a stereotype about an entire race of people.  Some things simply never belong on stage again. Ever.

 

By Paul Kolnik. Creative Commons Search.  Via Broadway.com

51 comments

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado6 years ago

Noted!

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Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle7 years ago

I know the story of the Scottsboro Boys, well.
The director explained that the blackface was PURPOSEFULLY used to show its racism during that time. "The trials were twisted like the boys were in a minstrel show because the trial was such a farce." And that by the end of the play, the blackface was removed PURPOSEFULLY, to show the evolution. "The actors actually deconstruct the blackface at the end and rebel against it." The device of this play was using blackface to savage it, not honor it.

Everyone has a right to his/her opinion. And perhaps my opinion doesn't have the resonance of a person of color (I'm beige), -- but artistic people see things in innovative ways that the rest of us, sometimes don't, and that's why we are entranced by their inventions. I haven't seen the play and probably won't, but it appears very clever to me, that the writers thought of the blackface device to show the utter absurdity of the trial. As the director said, perhaps the protesters should see the show before they lamblast it. I understand the immediate reaction of protesting blackface, but I still think the device was clever to show the racism of the time.

(and no, I can't imagine seeing a show with concentration camp victims, singing and dancing)
My opinion.

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Colin Hope
Colin Hope7 years ago

Noted!!

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Robert O.
Robert O7 years ago

It is offensive and racist. That type of show is a relic from the ugly past and should stay there. Regardless of what kind of point was being made some things should never be resurrected.

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Sam P.
Sam P.8 years ago

Although, re-reading back through the article, it does state that the show is all white writers, but after doing research it is clear that all the actors, except one are black. This therefore doesn't completely make it racist and is therefore following the traditions of an art form which started in the 1800s.

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Sam P.
Sam P.8 years ago

You can easily justify this show.

Yes, the show is still considered racist, there is no argument about that, but the justification given in the article says it isn't there to insult or ridicule African Americans, but rather show how unfair the trial against these African Americans was.

I think they are using minstrels in the show to bring back a form of entertainment America used to have. It is historical.

I find this show can not be seen as racist due to the fact it supports African Americans, it is just presented in a type of show that was colnsidered racist. But who is to say minstrel shows haven't taken a change for the better, and they are just using it because it was a form of sing and dance? In all fairness, African Americans did influence this type of show with their music, Americans just coppied. But yes the PAST minstrel shows were racist, there is no doubt about that.

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Bret S.
Bret S.8 years ago

Who in their right mind would produce a show using minstels in 2010? It's racist and downright offensive. It was racist before the civil rights movement, it was racist after it and it's certainly racist now.

How can you represent the show in a manner which is anything other than racist? And more importantly, how can you justify such a show?

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Sam P.
Sam P.8 years ago

Years ago, minstrel shows were classed as racist, due to the fact that they depicted African Americans in a bad light. Originally it wasn't seen as racist, o white Americans when this first started it was actuallyseen as entertainment, and believe it or not, people enjoyed it. It was only until the civil rights movement that it became classed as 'racism'.

Depending on how you represent the show, it can be seen as racist, or not racist. It does clearly state in the article that people have 'misunderstood that the creators were not celebrating the minstrel tradition, but rather using it to reveal the evils of the system.' But still by calling it a 'minstrel' show it will bring ideas of what they used to be shown as. Surely if you wanted to do a play, or sing-song about the evilsof something, you would get actors who are similar to the people to act it out?

Things like this can give people the wrong idea, even if they are meant to be something completely different to what people think it is.

To me, it isn't completely 'racist', it's just giving the play a bad name by calling it a 'minstrel show', considering what it used to be classed as decades ago.

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Gillian no fwds please no
Gillian M8 years ago

In the UK, back in the 60s, we had a programme called the Black & White minstrel show. The men had black faces and there was 1 white woman. All they did was sing. I always thought that it was because the Afro-Americans were better singers than the whites so they pretended to be black. As far as I was concerned it was a musical show until there was an objection to the blacked up men stereotyping the men of African origin. I always enjoyed the music (I was a small child) and never understood that there was racism involved.

This play sounds to me like the most disgusting and unwanted production that has ever made it to a theatre. However, as I haven't seen it, the only information provided is this article, nor do I know the history of such a terrible case of what sounds like a miscarriage of justice, it is difficult to be sure.

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John H.
John Charles H8 years ago

We are all some shade of brown, from pale to dark.Get a piece of paper that is white, place your hand on it. Wake up. I am so tired,calling people colors, or, People of Color.Until the 18th century,color did not even begin to define people. It was an adjective.Her hair was brown, his eyes were dark, their skin the color of cocoa, ... & wight is not a color, it is a comment on one's character,& other definitions, an old & noble word,not as people seem to think it means.Black & white were not used to describe race until sometime in the mid 18th century. Why can't people use big dictionaries. We are shades of brown. Read "The Sot Weed Factor" by John Barth.Find the correct usage of wight. Anybody can be wight if they have a special quality inside,being humane.Celtic,Berber,Nubian,Toltec, Shawnee,German, Arab,Zulu,it matters not.I pray we are finished with this foolishness,come now,see the conclusion,all are people of color,since all a shade of brown.Why do we play the master's game? Divide ourselves that we might be ruled with ease,& by fools,or avaricious louts.Can we not use the sense our Maker spiced us with,& be done with all divisive tiffs,to glory in the different tastes of all our varied cultures? Must it be, ignorance will win again?I have worn the shackles & the chains, though innocent I was.Can not we all, shed implements of terror for evermore? I have spoken out so long, it wears me down. None is yellow,white,red,or black. We are all peopl

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