I also attended this event on Monday, to hear Brandon, the director Niegel Smith and others talk about using blackface and minstrel shows in theatre to address the thorny issues of race. It was a pretty great conversation and talking with Brandon after helped clarify some things I had issues with in Neighbors and some things that I'm struggling with in my own work.
When I saw Neighbors, I was really struck by how little blackface affected me (in case you don't click any of the links above, in the play, a family of old-style minstrels in blackface move in next door to an interracial family). How do you approach blackface and stereotypes of African-Americans after you've seen this:
|The Racial Draft|
Seriously, what can Sambo or Topsy tell me after that? I grew up with this, man:
So blackface, in and of itself? Not so shocking to me. But there is a generation for whom it still has power, for whom it still needs to be pushed back against. And I respect that. I benefited from that. I just think we need to re-examine our relationship to it.
In addition to Neighbors, I've come across a couple of plays that use blackface and minstrel shows lately and I'm always left a bit cold. There's a simplistic treatment to it that I think leaves out a sense of complicity and a weird kind of ownership. Minstrel shows are upsetting, racist and disgusting...and the basis for the modern American musical. In fact, the minstrel show is one of the, what, two or three genuine American additions to the cultural legacy of the world. And yet, they're completely verboten and hidden away. It's a complicated history to delve into, with many, many layers to unpack. I think a lot of writers are happy to just say, "This is how they think of you." But it's obviously more complicated and more interwoven than that.
I've approached race fairly gingerly in my work, with one exception (and that apparently needs a new title). Partly as a result of my pre-post-racial upbringing (black dad, white stepmom, suburban childhood), partly because it's so huge and tangled, I wanted to make sure I had my craft down before I broached it. But since this is shaping up into The Year I Write About Race, blackface and minstrel shows looms large over it. It's not a thing I'm likely to use, not any time soon, since I write in more "realistic" vein and it's a powerful, more than surreal style, but it's something in the back of my mind. And I'm certainly excited to see it tackled on stage more.
But it does make wonder about the retroactive nature of theatre. The Dave Chappelle skit up there is six years old. Bamboozled was a decade ago. There's a lot more space to approach the issues of stereotypes and images of blackness, maybe even some more latitude. I think, for certain audiences, there is more to be gained from pushing the envelope even further and drawing a sharper connection between the antiquated tropes of the minstrel show and our own modern forms of entertainment.
Either way, it seems like we're coming into a period of facing some of this stuff head on. For that, at least, I'm glad.
Because I love it and it is, sincerely, a seminal work in my development as an artist and a person, I leave you with this: