minstrel show

Definition

Theater

  • An indigenous US entertainment consisting of lively songs,sentimental ballads, comic routines, and soft-shoe dancing, performedby White artistes in blackface. It dominated the popular stage inAmerica from 1840 to 1880. The songs and antics were based on stereotypednotions of Blacks from the US South. Wearing costumes of striped trousersand waistcoats with tall white hats, the performers would sit in asemicircle with banjos, tambourines, bones, and other instruments.Besides music, there was witty wrangling between the white-faced master-of-ceremonies,Mr Interlocutor, and the two 'end-men', Mr Tambo and Mr Bones. Specialityacts included the stump speech, the wench impersonation, and the plantationsketch.

    Minstrel shows descended directly from the popular performancesof T. D. Rice (known as Jim Crow), who in 1828 began to sing Negropatter songs, play the banjo, and perform burlesques of Shakespeareand opera, while imitating the idiosyncracies of an elderly Blackman he knew in Baltimore. Among the most popular troupes were Bryant'sMinstrels, who gave the South its unofficial anthem, 'Dixie',and the Christy Minstrels, who once gave 2500 performancesin one season in New York.

    After the Civil War, competition from variety encouragedthe minstrel masters to make their shows more professional and spectacular:in 1878 J. H. Havelry combined four troupes into his United MastodonMinstrels. The first real Blacks to appear in minstrel shows wereHaverly's Coloured Minstrels. Although the genre began to declinebefore the turn of the century, US entertainment remained influencedby the minstrel show and those performers trained in it, such as AlJolson and Eddie Cantor. Complaints about the insulting caricaturesof Blacks presented by the shows gathered pace with the rise of theCivil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, leading to the genre'sdemise.

    Britain had its own minstrel troupes, who played at St JamesHall, Piccadilly, from 1859 to 1904, the most popular being the Mooreand Burgess Minstrels, The Mohawks, and Sam Hague's Minstrels. Inthe 1960s the Black-and-White Minstrel Show became a fixture on televisionand at the Victoria Palace, London. The company's reformation in 1992caused much controversy, despite their abandonment of blackface.

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