“Blackface” and the Minstrel Show


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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American actor John McCullough as Othello, 1878.
American actor John McCullough as Othello, 1878.

In England, theatrical portrayals of black characters by white actors date back to as early as 1604. Since Shakespeare’s days, the character of Othello was traditionally played by a white actor in black makeup.

In the United States, during the 19th century, “Blackface” was a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person – a stereotyped caricature of black people – in minstrel shows, and later in vaudeville.

Reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from white to "black". (Source: Library of Congress)
Reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from white to “black”. (Source: Library of Congress)

However, there is no consensus about the origin of blackface.

The Padlock is a two-act ‘afterpiece‘ opera created by Charles Dibdin. It debuted in 1768 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, England, and was a success, largely due to Dibdin’s portrayal of Mungo, a blackface caricature of an inebriated black servant from the West Indies. The following year, the company took the production to the United States.

On May 29, 1769, Lewis Hallam, Jr., a white blackface actor of American Company fame, played the role of Mungo, in The Padlock, that premiered in New York City at the John Street Theatre with even greater accolades. In due course, the Mungo character attracted notice, and other performers adopted the style.

From the 1810s, blackface clowns were popular in the United States.

British actor Charles Mathews toured the United States in 1822–23, and as a result added a “black” characterization to his repertoire of British regional types for his next show, A Trip to America, which included Mathews singingPossum up a Gum Tree,” a popular slave freedom song.

Edwin Forrest played a plantation black in 1823, and George Washington Dixon was already building his stage career around blackface in 1828.

The song “Old Zip Coon

The song “Old Zip Coon” or “Zip Coon,” or was written sometime before 1827. At least four versions of the song were published between 1827 and 1834. Several folks have claimed to have written the song, but the true composer will probably never be known. Today, the tune itself is best known as “Turkey In The Straw.” The following video by Tom Roush portrays American life and music in the 19th century.

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The song “Jump Jim Crow

Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice Playing Jim Crow in Blackface, New York City, 1833.
Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice Playing Jim Crow in Blackface, New York City, 1833.

In 1828, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, a white New York comedian, performed his song and dance routine called “Jump Jim Crow” in blackface. Rice’s performance was supposedly inspired by the song and dance of a physically disabled black man he had seen in Cincinnati, Ohio, named Jim Cuff or Jim Crow.

The song “Jump Jim Crow” became a huge hit and Thomas Rice performed it across the country. By 1832, he scored stardom as “Daddy Jim Crow,” a caricature of a shabbily dressed Afro-American man.

Jim Crow as entertainment spread rapidly across the United States in the years prior to the Civil War and eventually spread its influence around the world. Because of this influence, in 1841, when John Lloyd Stephens, the United States’ special ambassador to Central America, arrived in Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a local brass band played “Jump Jim Crow” inadvertently, because they thought it was the national anthem of the United States.

The popularity of Jump Jim Crow and the blackface form of entertainment also prompted many whites to refer to most black males routinely as Jim Crow.

Jim Crow contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”.

The Minstrel Show

Jump Jim Crow” initiated a new form of popular music and theatrical performances in the United States that focused their attention on the mockery of Afro-Americans. This new genre was called the minstrel show.

The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was a form of American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface. By the late 18th century, blackface characters began appearing on the American stage, usually as servants to provide some element of comic relief. The black people were lampooned in the minstrel shows as musically oriented lazy, dim-witted, buffoonish, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky.

In the early 1830s, the blackface acts found a home in the taverns of New York’s less respectable precincts of Lower Broadway, the Bowery, and Chatham Street and in circuses.

It also appeared on more respectable stages, most often as brief burlesques and comic an entr’acte in New York theaters. Upper-class houses at first limited the number of such acts they would show, but beginning in 1841, much to the dismay of some patrons, blackface performers frequently took to the stage at even the classy Park Theatre.

In popularity, the blackface “Sambo” character superseded the “tall-tale-telling Yankee” and the “frontiersman” character-types.

White actors such as Charles Mathews, George Washington Dixon, and Edwin Forrest began to build reputations as blackface performers. Author Constance Rourke even claimed that Forrest’s impression was so good he could fool blacks when he mingled with them in the streets.

In the following decade, blackface minstrelsy transformed into a full-fledged distinctly American theatrical form. By 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art form of the time that translated formal art such as the opera into popular terms for a general audience. After the Civil War (fought from 1861 to 1865), black people too got into the act in the minstrel shows.

In the 1830s and 1840s, blackface minstrelsy was at the core of the rise of an American music industry, and for several decades, it served as the spectacles through which white America viewed black America.

While the blackface minstrelsy had its strong racist aspects, it also afforded the white Americans to have a singular and broad awareness of the significant aspects of black-American culture.

The Panic of 1837 was a financial crisis in the United States that touched off a major recession that lasted until the mid-1840s. During this period, theater attendance suffered, and concerts were one of the few attractions that could still make money.

In 1843, four blackface performers led by Dan Emmett, calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, staged a concert at the New York Bowery Amphitheatre. Thus, was born the minstrel show as a complete evening’s entertainment. The original lineup consisted of Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower.

The Virginia Minstrels show had little structure. The four sat in a semicircle, played songs, and traded wisecracks. One gave a stump speech in dialect, and they ended with a lively plantation song.

The term “minstrel” had previously been reserved for traveling white singing groups, but Emmett and his group made it synonymous with blackface performance, and by using it, signalled that they were reaching out to a new, middle-class audience.

On February 6, 1843, New York Herald, wrote that the production was “entirely exempt from the vulgarities and other objectionable features, which have hitherto characterized Negro extravaganzas.”

1844 sheet music cover for a collection of songs by the Christy's Minstrels. George Christy appears in the circle at top. (Source: Boston Public Library)
1844 sheet music cover for a collection of songs by the Christy’s Minstrels. George Christy appears in the circle at top. (Source: Boston Public Library)

In 1845, the Ethiopian Serenaders surpassed the Virginia Minstrels in popularity by purging out low humor from their show. Shortly thereafter, Edwin Pearce Christy formed Christy’s Minstrels, combining the refined singing of the Ethiopian Serenaders with the Virginia Minstrels’ bawdy act. Christy’s company established the three-act template into which minstrel shows would fall for the next few decades.

From then on, a typical minstrel performance followed a three-act structure. The troupe first danced onto stage, then exchanged wisecracks and sang songs. The second part featured a variety of entertainment, including the pun-filled stump speech. The final act consisted of a slapstick musical plantation skit or a send-up of a popular play.

The songs and sketches in the typical minstrel show featured several stock characters, most popularly the slave and the dandy. The characters were further divided into sub-archetypes such as the mammy, her counterpart the old darky, the provocative mulatto wench, and the black soldier.

Minstrels claimed that their songs and dances were authentically black, although the extent of the black influence remains debated.

In 1866, Sam Hague, a British blackface minstrel dancer was the first white owner of a minstrel troupe composed of black members called Sam Hague’s Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels. The troupe toured England for several years.

Hague’s overseas success lent black minstrelsy a new credence in the United States. However, at least one critic maintained their rise had damaged minstrelsy, and that white blackface minstrels were better at representing black Americans than black Americans were themselves.

Hague’s lead inspired many other white owners to purchase black companies. By the mid-1870s, white men owned the most successful American black troupes. Ironically, when Sam Hague’s Slave Troupe returned to the United States, Charles Callender purchased the company.

William H. West, known as the “Progressive Minstrel,” emulated Sam Hague and became one of the first white owners of a minstrel troupe composed of black performers in the United States. West often produced and played minstrel shows with George Primrose. They had a hit, and were known as “The Millionaires of Minstrelsy.”

Poster of William H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee rough riders.
Poster of William H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee rough riders.

In the 1870s, spirituals, also known as jubilees, entered the repertoire marking the first undeniably black music to be used in minstrelsy. William West became the sole producer “William H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” the supposedly richest and costliest minstrel organization in existence. The Big Minstrel Jubilee, featured some of the leading performers of the day. Their show always ended with the cast, in blackface, singing songs of the period.

The minstrel shows were extremely popular, enjoyed by whole families from all walks of life irrespective of the ethnic group they belonged to.

At the same time, they were also controversial. While the racial integrationists decried them as falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them, the segregationists thought such shows were disrespectful of social norms as they portrayed runaway slaves with sympathy, and undermined the institution of the southerners.

The minstrel shows survived as professional entertainment until about 1910 when it lost popularity and was replaced for the most part by vaudeville. Blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide. At the same time, they popularized black culture.

Amateurs continued to perform blackface and the minstrel shows in high schools, and local theaters, until the 1960s. These performances too ended in the United States as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s progressed and gained acceptance.

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