The Minstrel show presents a strange, fascinating and awful phenomenon. Between 1843, when the first organized troupe appeared, and the 1870's, the minstrel show was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America. White performers wearing burnt cork or black shoe polish on their faces assumed the roles of African American men and women. A typical minstrel show would have songs, dances, jokes and grand hoe-downs. The minstrel show tried to capture the "happy-go-lucky" slave that ate watermelon and shuffled about. However, this idea of the "happy slave" was very wrong. Since this was before the civil rights movement, African Americans were caricatured and often stereotyped as the lazy, shuffling, hungry and ignorant "darkie." The dialect of the performances was inspired by the blacks on Southern plantations. Characteristics and hallmarks of the Minstrel show emerged from preindustrial European traditions of masking and carnival. Even though the minstrel show echoed racism, some people believe that it was a step in theater's history, especially American theater. It was the prerequisite to some of America's well known songs and dance styles. It also influenced writers such as Harriet Beecher Stow and Mark Twain.
The earliest form of the minstrel show can be contributed to a man named Thomas D. Rice, or often called "Daddy Rice." While walking to a theater in Louisville, Kentucky, he came across a singing slave grooming a horse. The melody intrigued him so much that he wanted to learn it. The lyrics were "You wheel about and turn about and do just so, You wheel about and turn about and jump Jim Crow." Hence, the term "Jim Crow" was coined. The character of Jim Crow was an exaggerated stereotype, who in the
eyes of white people appeared as a naive, clumsy, devil-may-care southern plantation slave who dressed in rags. Also, Jim Crow was often used to refer to any black slave of the time.
The slave Rice encountered also had a shuffle step to accompany the song. Rice seen the potential in the song and dance of the slave for an entr'acte piece, or after piece. Theater during the period of the nineteenth century often performed lengthy productions for its audiences. It was not uncommon for audiences to spend up to five hours in the theater. After the regular play was over, a short play, or entr'acte piece was performed to allow the audience to leave the theater on an "up beat" note. These after pieces were usually farces and comical performances. The audience loved the imitation of the black slave Rice had performed. Soon the popularity of this act caught on and many other troupe s and actors began performing the "black face" shows. The tradition began in 1843 when a group of four white men from Virginia, known as the "Virginia Minstrels," performed a song-and-dance act in a small hall in New York City. The Virginia Minstrels took their name from a popular variety act from Austria, the Tyrolean Minstrels. Thus, "minstrels," or minstrelsy became the generic term for this form of entertainment.1 The performance was such a success that the group was invited to tour to other cities and imitators sprang up immediately.
A typical minstrel show performance was divided into three parts, if the afterpiece is counted. The first part was the actual minstrel show, in which approximately nine or ten performers sat in a semicircle on stage. In the middle sat the character of "Mr. Interlocutor," who introduced the acts and cued the two actors on either end of the semicircle who acted as comic sidemen. These characters on the ends were usually given
the name of Mr. Tambo, who played a tambourine and Mr. Bones, who shook a percussive instrument. Another example that represented the white people's idea of a typical black male was a character named Zip Coon or Dandy Jim, who portrayed the urban black as an absurd man who wore a blue coat with tails. This idea of...
Bibliography: of Commedia dell 'Arte. Internet. Available: http//www.214b.com 7 April 2002.
The Black and White Minstrel Show. Internet. Available: http://www.mbcnet.org/archives/htmlB/blackandwim.htm. 9 April 2002
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteeth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
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