The Return of Blackface

Recent plays have resorted to a device that harks back to the days of the minstrel shows, says Broadway and Me blogger, Janice C. Simpson.

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blackface

Broadway and Me blogger Janice C. Simpson takes a thoughtful look at the reappearance of black face in two recent theater productions.

Who would have thought that in the age of Obama, black face and minstrel shows would be making a comeback? But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two very different shows that use these dubious old theatrical devices. And so this is a longer-than-usual post because I want to tell you about both of them. One is a new play by a young African-American playwright that is part of the Emerging Writers series at the Public Theater. The other is the much anticipated musical that the venerable John Kander and Fred Ebb were working on at the time of Ebb’s death in 2004.

Both works are problematic. And that’s not just because the sight of an actor done up to resemble a black caricature makes me uncomfortable. In fact, one of the things that first intrigued me about The Scottsboro Boys, the Kander & Ebb musical that opened at the Vineyard Theatre this week, was the idea of its using the prism of a minstrel show to look at a shameful but true story in this nation’s past. In 1931, nine black boys, aged 13 to 19, were falsely accused of raping two white women in a train boxcar traveling through Alabama. The case became a cause célèbre, going all the way up to the Supreme Court twice, and the youths were tried repeatedly—and repeatedly found guilty by all-white juries—throughout the rest of the decade. After a while, their northern supporters, including the NAACP and the Communist Party, turned their attentions elsewhere. Eight of the Boys were eventually released after long years in prison, some of that time on death row. One would die in jail two decades later. (Click here for a full account of their story.)

Kander & Ebb have excelled at this kind of storytelling before: using a vaudeville framework to showcase the corrupting influence of celebrity culture in Chicago and a nightclub setting as the backdrop for the Nazi’s rise in Cabaret. But their creative collaborators on those productions were, respectively, Bob Fosse and Hal Prince, two of the great geniuses in modern theater. Susan Stroman is at the helm of The Scottsboro Boys, and although she’s a talented woman and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met (I interviewed her once) she just doesn’t have the conceptual chops of a Fosse or a Prince. And so this show’s minstrel conceit is halfhearted and half-realized. The show titillates but it doesn’t really illuminate, except to say that racism is bad. Which I hope all of us already knew. There’s a number set around the Boys’ fear of being railroaded into the electric chair but none that really gets at how their plight was exploited by all sides and turned into a kind of, well, political minstrel show.

The complete review is in the Broadway and Me blog, here.

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