THE MINSTREL SHOW REVISITED
November 1, 2015
Donald Byrd’s "The Minstrel Show Revisited" presented a new take on his work of the same title from 1991, performed at NYU Skirball center. Part traditional Minstrel show, part audience interaction and part contemporary dance and movement, this 3-hour long performance showcased a captivating body of work stinging with racial commentary. Each dancer in the cast wore blackface and an afro wig, as is expected with a subject matter like this, but no less jarring to see. With cartoon-like dispositions and high energy, the early numbers were both fun and incredibly uncomfortable because of the images being presented.
After the opening number promising the audience a “hot time,” Byrd himself asked five members of the audience to come up and share the most recent racial joke they had heard, as a follow up to the many race jokes told in the introductory number. Talking as himself to the audience, Byrd was directly inviting us to embrace and take part in the conversation. He continued this interaction after intermission, but before that he revisited the stage as a minstrel caricature.
Even though this style of representation is long taboo, if the costumes and makeup were stripped away, this caricature of the black American is not heavily different from the pitfalls and stereotypes found in the pop culture of today.
In the most serious and transformational moment, the makeup has come off the majority performers with 4 white, high society antebellum women and men slowly moving across a blank stage as a black slave runs around the empty space, desperate for help. After this moment breaks, the minstrel leader, portrayed eerily well, enters the stage and breaks the tension if only briefly.
The final piece of the show was to take this work of the past and set it in the present where all of these issues are still topical and burning to be addressed. Now everyone but the minstrel leader has wiped away their makeup to set the stage for 2 readings: one of George Zimmerman’s call to 911 and one of the police’s formal interview with Darren Wilson. Both men, whose names are known for fatally shooting unarmed young black men is set to the score of tambourines. It really creates a haunting image as they act out these readings. A black dancer moves with a dancer in blackface to recreate the transcripts being read, putting a visual twist on the shooter, portraying them as what they may see these young men to be.
Unfortunately the power of these final acts were undermined by arriving at the tail end of an already two and a half hour performance, but even for running so long over time this part of the evening was sure to keep you in your seat. With The Minstrel Show Revisited Byrd succeeds in raising many questions by creating a difficult inner confrontation between between entertainment, talent and negative representation.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Annie Woller