A Bad Joke 

The Minstrel Show

Donald Byrd/The Group

at the Shubert Theatre, April 13-15

Five years ago, in the Crown Heights section of New York City, a five-year-old African American boy was playing on the sidewalk when he was struck and killed by a station wagon that had somehow jumped the curb. When the driver, a young student from a nearby Hasidic neighborhood, wasn't charged with any crime, a riot broke out. Tensions between the neighboring Hasidic and African American communities had been smoldering for some time, and the death of an innocent child literally set them on fire. This incident, says choreographer Donald Byrd, inspired him to create The Minstrel Show, a terribly boring, pedantic performance that won him New York's Bessie award in 1992.

One of Byrd's aims in The Minstrel Show is to get us thinking about race relations and about the historic roots of current racial strife. (Getting us thinking seems to be the rage among avant-garde New York choreographers of the 1990s.) And to make certain we think about it, Byrd hosts a postshow discussion, allowing audiences to examine their souls and realize just how bad things really are. The discussion would be fine and dandy--if Byrd had given us something real to think about.

What kills me is that, in creating this show, Byrd went about as far from his source as he could get. He calls The Minstrel Show an "abstraction" of the minstrel form, which gained popularity in the United States in the mid-1800s. He notes that minstrel shows were the first indigenous American entertainment, and that they were inherently racist. But so were the times. "Racism" wasn't an issue then: slavery was. By 1890 minstrel shows were all but dead, replaced by genuinely all-black variety shows and vaudeville. One hundred years and many social transformations later, Byrd (a scholarly man educated at Tufts and Yale) unearths the minstrel form and puts it onstage. His goal is to reveal to Americans the long-lived stench of our racism, but the racism embodied in minstrel shows decayed so long ago there is no stench. He tries to rattle its bones, but the bones have turned to dust. The Minstrel Show is about as entertaining as a bad circus act and as emotionally challenging as a crossword puzzle.

Following on the heels of the Chicago engagement of Bill T. Jones's Still/Here, The Minstrel Show shares some of that work's features. Both garnered extensive publicity because of their media-hip subjects. And, like Jones, Byrd published a lengthy addendum to the Stagebill program that details the history of minstrel shows and--for those of us unable to do so on our own--analyzes Byrd's work. But a real work of art doesn't need ten pages of explanation. A work of art should stand alone.

One of the most telling lines came from a dense academic essay by dramaturge Mona Heinze: "The Minstrel Show is a collage of different scenes [each] challenging the spectator to become a co-writer." Thank you, but I prefer to see shows already written. And if I were a cowriter, I'd do things differently. For starters, I'd cut the redundancies and the hyperintellectual, holier-than-thou aesthetic that drives them. Byrd roughly sticks to the format of traditional minstrel shows, staging a big opening number followed by a variety of shorter acts that are supposed to be comical, romantic, or both. This is fine. But in hip, radical post-postmodern fashion he "subverts" this traditional structure by immediately commenting on the form's inherent racism. In a bold move he distorts the opening song, "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," to underline the unsavory side of blackface and verses like "dandy coons in nifty acts." The performers then fearlessly confront our racial stereotypes by reciting a litany of racist jokes, interspersed with meaningless bits of choreography. Byrd further confronts our stereotypes by inviting real audience members (man, this guy is radical) onstage to tell racist jokes. Then the performers tell the same racist jokes over again. Finally Byrd really socks it to us, announcing: "I'd like all of you who are afraid to get up here to write your racist jokes on a piece of paper. In the second act we'll collect them and read them aloud." And they do.

As the ten-page program informs us, this repetition of jokes we've all heard before is intended to raise the question "What does it mean to tell a racist joke?" In this specific case, it means that the audience paid $10-$30 to be treated like a bunch of third-graders. Equally annoying is the fact that Byrd's choreography is as vapid as the jokes. Take the "Tambourine/KKK Ballet," in which a white woman wearing a platinum-blond wig, black stockings, black garter belt, and black leather lingerie unseductively beats her tambourines on her ass to seduce a black man. Once she has him in her lair, a KKK figure about as imposing as a sixth-grade boy walks onstage and escorts the black man off. Then, while the woman is seducing yet another unsuspecting black male, an object stuffed to resemble the first man drops from the rafters with a noose around its neck. This piece has no artistry. It has no soul. It simply natters at its audience, saying nothing new.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Tom Brazil.

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