Death and the Minstrel: Race, Madness, and Art in the last (W)Rites of three early Blackface Performers
By Stephen Johnson
From the Introduction: “Death and the Minstrel: Race, Madness, and Art in the last (W)Rites of Three Early Blackface Performers,” follows up on the arguments of the first two chapters, teasing out of specific documents a sense of the life, work, and legacy of the early blackface minstrel performers, as seen through the men who wrote about their deaths. To some extent these writers prefer to focus on the exhibition and dissemination of skill and cultural practice and the strength of human character evidenced in the camaraderie of touring. But also embedded in these documents—obituaries, brief parable-like biographies, calls for post-funeral fund-raisers, and the medical records of an asylum—is the fear of failure, the idolization of wealth, and the exhibition of madness and race. The simple common image of the blackface minstrel man depicted nostalgically, and then critically, in the twentieth century is belied by such documents.
Stephen Johnson is Director of the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (The Drama Centre) at the University of Toronto. He has taught theatre, film and performance studies at the University of Guelph, McMaster University, and at the University of Toronto Mississauga, as well as at the Drama Centre. His publications include The Roof Gardens of Broadway Theatres, numerous book chapters, and articles in The Drama Review, Canadian Theatre Review, Theatre Topics and Nineteenth Century Theatre, as well as Theatre Research in Canada, which he (co)edited for ten years. He has edited a volume of forty essays for Performing Arts Resources entitled A Tyranny of Documents: The Performing Arts Historian as Film Noir Detective. His recently completed research project on blackface minstrelsy resulted in a database and website, available as a link from this site ( link.library.utoronto.ca/minstrels ). He is currently working on a related project, Cross Border Blackface, exploring the history of minstrelsy in Southern Ontario, which among many defining attributes was a terminus for the underground railroad. He is also developing a web-based project focusing more generally on performance in Southern Ontario during the 19th and early 20th centuries, available as it develops at link.library.utoronto.ca/ontheroad/canadawest.